The Newspaper Is Dead, Long Live the Newspaper

(Photo: Why, there was a time, my son, when people read these things called newspapers… Credit: Cushman Collection.)

The following is a cross-posted article from my byline at the Huffington Post Chicago.

Last week’s newest bloodletting at Sam Zell’s Chicago Tribune saw bone start to be jettisoned along with flesh. On top of hundreds of job losses since the beginning of the year, early-buyout exits by managing news editor Hanke Gratteau and public editor Timothy McNulty-along with two dozen other core newsroom staff-from one of the most important news outfits in the nation is shocking.

But it’s no surprise (at least not for anyone who’s ever glanced at Newspaper Death Watch). The Trib and the newspaper industry in general are suffering from one grand malady that no number of injudicious job cuts can solve: the American newspaper as we know it is already dead. Not ailing. Not on life support. No longer revivable. Stiff, hard, lifeless.

Welcome to 2008, almost a decade into a twenty-first century where working stiffs like you and me long ago learned to put down our newspapers and get most of our information off of the Internet, and where most of our children have never even learned to pick up a paper in the first place.

Print media came to pass in a much different era, one in which the speed of communication was defined by the speed of your fastest horse. After all, horses drew the carriages that delivered millions of papers to news-hungry Americans until well into the twentieth century.

The traditional newspaper model made sense at the time: create a product keyed to the fastest delivery method possible and build an industry around it. Printed news, publishing money fronted by printed ads, physically distributed to subscribers who paid for the convenience of having the world delivered to their doorstep each morning.

Unfortunately, it’s an entirely irrelevant model today. In 2008, instant communication is defined by the speed of light-the rapid rate at which electronic information zips from one end of Planet Earth to the other. Nowadays, we expect the world to be instantly available from our desktop, not waiting for us once a day on our doorstep.

This is reality. We are a plugged in populace these days. It’s getting harder and harder to claim a “digital divide” in an era of $200 home computers and universal Internet access at our nation’s libraries. Our national watchwords seem to have morphed from “a chicken in every pot” to “a cell phone in every pocket”-and this across the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

So why do the feet of the newspaper industry continue to straddle two centuries?

True, since the 1990s most papers have made huge strides in creating online versions of themselves. The best of these are free, receive minute-by-minute updates throughout the day, and offer a wide variety of interactive functionality to readers.

The worst of these are gone. They were the paid electronic versions, the most notorious of which being the now defunct New York Times Select service, that sought to build a firewall around their content, essentially bringing the news-for-a-fee print model onto the World Wide Web.

The failure of paid electronic newspapers should have been telling: the Internet is a wholly different environment. Instant, yes, but also consociational, open source, and freely available. And consumers in that sphere like it that way-they certainly liked it enough to take their Times news-reading elsewhere.

So the industry has learned at least about the reality of the electronic market in which it must now compete. But actually building an engaging and free web presence that is also a profitable one remains an open question. While groping desperately for an answer, this nation’s newspapers have resorted to all sorts of folly to tighten their belts around their nineteenth-century waists. Changing inks. Compacting sizes. Dropping beats. Jettisoning staff.

That these stop-gap efforts are being chased equally by paid and free papers (Chicago Reader, anyone?) is an important point. That freebies can’t even bring their print readers back in sufficient number to keep their advertisers happy ought to set off klaxons in the industry-loud ones, with big, red, spinning lights, perhaps accompanied by pointed EBS industry weather warning.

Instead, we get the Trib showing Hanke Gratteau and Timothy McNulty the door. And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, to add stupidity to injury, Bill Parker, the person responsible for the Trib’s web presence is out the door, too.

It’s a pathetic state of affairs. The American newspaper industry seems dead set on going to its collective grave in a futile effort to fit an 1800s business model into a 2000s consumer market. But you can’t turn back the clock, least of all on techonological realities, and the deep and abiding economic changes they bring.

There is a solution, more than likely an inevitable one. In fact, that inevitability is probably why the industry is doing everything it can to try and make the old model work. However, it’s not an easy fix. It requires a wholesale letting go of the industry as we know it.

Newspapers must accept the fact that their online versions are their primary versions now. Not in the future. Not potentially. Already. The long-vaunted printed paper may still be kicking for the moment, but it is already a secondary outlet and there is no going back. American newspapers that survive in this century will be those who grasp, accept, and celebrate this concept. You are electronic media now, first and foremost.

Whether this means a future where printed news is absent entirely or a premium product provided to a select few who wish to pay for it is anyone’s guess. It does, however require the industry to remove its head from the rump of yesteryear’s unworkable business model and concentrate, instead and fully, on devising an online model with the power to enage and entire readers and advertisers to come along for the ride.

The industry can continue to create its own problems, or wake up and smell the virtual coffee. No matter what, you can’t fight fate. Note to cowering media mavens: next time you come down from your towers and take a walk past a newsstand, please take heed. See it for what it is: a sidewalk museum of failed economics. Let the pain in. Take a deep breath. Let go of the past, it’s only hurting you, you know.

Then grab a sandwich and an Orangina, head back to your offices (and if your office is in the Tribune Tower, set all bongs and girlie mags aside), and brainstorm a way to truly join the rest of us in the twenty-first century economy.

That’s an information economy, folks, in case you haven’t paying attention. For the past 15 years.

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