Who needs newspapers?

I read two thought-provoking pieces this week on the decline of newspapers from voices outside the newspaper business and one Really Dumb Idea from a voice on the inside.

Author Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable:

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

ODP/DMOZ creator and veteran geek, Rich Skrenta, The news medium has a message: “Goodbye”:

Every so often there’s a story about about a technophobe executive so out of touch a secretary has to print out their email every morning so they can read it on paper and dictate replies.

That’s what the print newspaper is, of course. Why on earth would you print all that stuff out? Over a hundred pages, most of which you’re not going to read, with the crease down the middle of the front page photo, story jumps everywhere, a carbon-footprint disaster to produce, distribute and recycle. It’s absurd.

I once worked out some rough back-of-napkin estimates on the number of text bytes in the paper. It was only delivered once during the day, but if you average the bytes across the entire 24 hour period it came out to be about the rate of a 300 baud modem. The newspaper was the internet.

Both make essentially the same point: the newspaper is an accident of history whose time is just about up. Rather than try to figure out how to “fix” the newspaper problem, we should focus on what’s next.

A lot of the players in the news ecosystem have already done that. I’ve written before about how most newspapers are just repackagers of information.

Newspapers have long played to the middle, and not in a political sense. They put out essentially one product and hope that the average person finds enough of value in to subscribe. The cost of print means that you really can’t go into a lot of depth on a lot of topics. You can’t cover things that are extremely important to a few hundred people.

That worked when getting that depth was a difficult thing for readers. Now, infinite depth on just about any topic is a click away. For sports, finance and politics junkies, sites like ESPN.com, morningstar.com and huffingtonpost.com are much better ways to quench their appetites.

In the meantime, the diehards in the newspaper business will come up with stupider and stupider ideas. Consider this story (via Blake Williams) about a personalized print-at-home newspaper:

MediaNews has been working with a technology company — Mr. Vandevanter would not say which one — to develop a proprietary printer for a reader’s home. It would receive and print a subscriber’s customized newspaper — with targeted advertising.

You have to have a new printer to help cut their printing and delivery costs! Maybe you’ll even have to buy special paper and ink so you can get that full broadsheet experience and can get that genuine newspaper experience of having ink rub off on your fingers. For real authenticity, the registration will be off every once in a while so that the pictures don’t look right.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to scan a link on the printed page with your CueCat to go to a Web site you find interesting.


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
This entry was posted in journalism, media, newspapers, web 2, web 2.0. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Who needs newspapers?

  1. Bryan Saxton says:

    I understand the argument that newspapers should shed the paper versions of their newspapers, but where would sites like the Huffington Post be without the New York Times or the Washington Post?

  2. The Times, Post and WSJ are among the few print outlets that generate a significant amount of original content. I hope their reporting will be around long after their print editions are gone.

    They just need to focus on what they do best. You’re already seeing some of that happen. The Post this week announced that they’re folding their rather anemic business section into the A section of the paper.

    That said, political stories will always come out as long as there’s a motivation to do so. A lot of political stories are the result of leaks, not years of hard work by journalists. If there’s no newspaper to leak to, our latter day Mark Felts will leak to Huffington Post, Smoking Gun, Politico, Michelle Malkin, etc.

    The blogosphere and the Internet don’t get enough credit for what they’ve contributed to our collective knowledge. It was conservative bloggers that discredited the CBS story about George W. Bush in the national guard, pointing out the rather obvious fact that superscript didn’t exist at the time that documents were purported to have been created.

    We’ll also go back a couple of hundred years to a time when media were more explicitly political. We already see this in cable news with Fox and MSNBC.

    Politicians will have greater and greater direct access to the public. George Allen’s Macaca moment would have gone unnoticed a decade ago. Instead, it cost him his seat in the Senate and was enough to shift the balance of power to the Democrats.

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  4. cheryl haas says:

    I agree that the newspaper as we have known it will morph into a new model. I also agree that it’s not the newspaper so much (that pains me a little to say), but the journalist who are the prized possessions. We have to figure out a way to continue to make journalism a viable profession, which attracts super smart, passionate people to report on now and to do the deep analysis–to uncover the stories under the story, to make sense of the larger picture, to connect the dots.

    I read lots of blogs and find great value in them. But, they are different than the NY Times or the Washington Post. Blogs serve, even the most respected ones, a different purpose. Call me old school, but I don’t trust them as much. In my eye, they don’t have quite the same standards as an old school journalist does. I trust the industry and niche blogs when I feel they are truly experts in their field. And, a lot of them are definitely on par with “traditional” journalists. But, one problem is that I have to go to so many sites, read so much…there is no editor to weed out the most important – to tell me everything that is going on and here’s what I need to know.

    As a daily subscriber to the Washington Post, I love reading the newspaper. I love having the paper in my hands. I find it easier to scan, ingest the entire contents of the paper in the hard copy. I “read” the New York Times online, but I don’t get as engaged with it compared with diving into the NYT hard copy. I miss the nuances and interest of the stories that I may otherwise read in the hardcopy. The online versions do take me a lot less time, but I also feel like I’m a lot less informed both on the hard and soft news fronts.

    Certainly, I will adapt to the changes that are surely to come. And, I hope to be able to get the same thing out of it. I also hope that we as a society are able to hold onto the role of a stellar journalist. In the meantime, I am delighted to open my front door and see the Washington Post on my top step.

  5. bry0000000 says:

    “That said, political stories will always come out as long as there’s a motivation to do so. A lot of political stories are the result of leaks, not years of hard work by journalists. If there’s no newspaper to leak to, our latter day Mark Felts will leak to Huffington Post, Smoking Gun, Politico, Michelle Malkin, etc.”

    Maybe some would come out. But you don’t just pick up a pen and pad one day, put on your trench coat and say to yourself “I think I’m gonna break the Watergate story today.” Stories like that take resources, such as time and money. And don’t forget that the person who is breaking the story has to support himself. Someone who is moonlighting as a reporter does not have enough time to thoroughly research the story, and someone who works all day as a reporter, but doesn’t get paid, cannot earn enough money to support himself.

    What the internet has done for investigative reporting is great, but it hasn’t been as effective of a check on government as the reporting that our news institutions have been.

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