Print media has been crumbling for a while, but a few recent events appear to have triggered a tipping point. The LA Times, Time Warner, Gannett, the Tribune Company and others have axed significant numbers of staff. A steaming heap of money-wasting investments are bankrupting the New York Times. The Christian Science Monitor went online-only.
In older news, Craigslist has killed classified ad profits, while mass media monopolies in general have lost their edge as financial powerhouses.
If newspapers* don’t streamline, they die.
The argument goes that cruddy, poor-quality New Media will replace newspapers entirely. I don’t believe this is true, mainly because Old Media fills a powerful human need for authoritative, well-researched, and skillfully crafted information.
I don’t buy it (err, in fact, I actually don’t buy newspapers. But I would, if good online content wasn’t free). Here are my counterpoints.
Newspapers Are Evolving
Newspapers have tried to cater to New Media formats by increasing their multimedia and easy-to-digest content. They’re not competing in the right space by doing that. Their real strength lies in focusing on their most powerful niche, which is legitimate, high-quality content.
People will pay for information that is well-researched, objective, and skillfully crafted. Good journalism is hard work based on a solid tradition. It is an asset. Most people who read newspapers can discern between high-quality and mediocre content. That is why they buy.
Social Media Cannot Replace Reporting
Reporting, which is a full-time job, requires networks, resources, and relationships. Bloggers may nibble at a real reporting infrastructure, but many are far from the real thing. Bloggers provide peepholes into situations; newspapers present entire windows.
The idea that newspapers will be subbed out entirely by social media is far-fetched. People are looking at the issue from a narrow context, as in, newspapers as we know them now will be replaced by social media as we know it now.
Not likely. If anything, newspapers will functionally integrate with social media, providing a one-stop shop where real-time comment streams and other inputs complement an objective core article.
Newspapers maintain a solid competitive advantage on objective reportage, which will always play a central role (as proven by human history). They can use this advantage to parse up or integrate their core product into modernized news systems. The newspaper as we know it will look different in coming years. Perhaps it will show up as a co-branded phenomenon, or inhabit an aggregated site. It will not die.
Going Non-Profit is an Option
As newspapers have been painfully aware of in recent years, high-quality content is expensive. Advertisers interested in wide distribution have defected to other forms of Internet media. What form does a newspaper have to take to stay most true to its main asset, namely, objective reportage? Does a corporation best serve both the public’s need for objective information and reporters’ need for resources?
That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. When they lay off reporters, publishers indicate that they can’t afford their own biggest assets. The latest rash of lay-offs point to a friction between profitability and quality reportage that may prove impossible to reconcile.
I maintain that newspapers can continue to fulfill their role while finding innovative ways to charge readers for their services. Because their services are centered around providing objective information to civic society, rather than bolstering the net worth of members of that society, they would best be supported through civic means.
NPR uses donation drives. The BBC uses taxes. The CS Monitor uses a religious institution. All three of these newspapers offer damn good reporting. The New York Times, a profit-driven organization, has had some serious scars on its reporting record in recent years. The LA Times has, well, one movie critic.
Non-profit, if run correctly, works. And innovative sales options remain. If my favorite newspapers went non-profit, and that non-profit chose to make money by charging 75 cents for each full online edition of the paper (in essence, uploading newsstands), I would definitely buy.
Conclusion: Newspapers are Changing. They are not Dead.
Where are newspapers headed? Nobody knows. The only safe conclusion to make is that the entire industry needs to adopt a new set of norms.
If social media gains strength in the meantime, that’s nice. But I’m almost positive that in the long run, news will not go the way of the dodo.
*In context of this post, “newspapers” means Old Media News in general, not the tangible paper unit.