Inquirer column: Do we need papers?

New technology offers solutions
Philadelphia Inquirer
April 23, 2006

Do we need newspapers? No. Do we need news and journalism and an informed democracy? Of course we do. But paper? Why? Too often, I hear editors pleading to save newspapers and newsrooms as their status quo is threatened by plummeting circulation, imploding advertising, impatient shareholders, multimedia youth and the Internet. Everyone is to blame for newspapers’ pickle, it seems, but the newspapers themselves.

Yet perhaps the era of newspapers as we now know them is simply over. Especially since broadcast killed competitive newspapers, they have become one-size-fits-all vehicles that cannot possibly be all things to all people; they may be convenient, but they are also inefficient and shallow compared with the depth of the Internet. Newspapers are inevitably stale next to broadcast and online. They are inefficient advertising vehicles for highly targeted sales – classifieds and very local retail. Newspapers are terribly expensive to produce and distribute in a marketplace where your competition is free.

If you are a publishing executive or journalist, your reaction to that harsh reality may be to hold on for dear life to the old ways, which is what I have seen some newspaper people do, until now – until it could be too late for them. Or your reaction can be to see this as an opportunity to gather and share news in entirely new and often better ways thanks to new technologies that reduce the cost of distribution, speed up production, allow relevant targeting of both content and advertising, and, most important, allow the people we used to call the audience – you – to join in and help inform your neighbors.

The Guardian in London (where – full disclosure – I write and sometimes consult) just spent £80 million on new presses, yet the newspaper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, amazed me when he conceded that those are likely the last presses the newspaper will ever own. “The last presses” – a phrase I cannot imagine passing the lips of an American editor. But that is exactly how we must think. We have to break free of the shackles of our limited, expensive, outmoded, old medium of paper.

Credit Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch with just such foresight and courage. In October, he wrote that his newspaper – “celebrating, with no fanfare, its 80th birthday this year – is caught up more than most newspapers in the industry’s current death spiral.” Yes, he saw dark clouds on the horizon. But at least he saw the horizon, for he added: “If we don’t change, we will die – and it will be our fault.” And he proposed that newspapers should stop thinking of themselves as newspapers but instead reinvent themselves as news organizations – “norgs,” in his admittedly grating parlance. On his blog,, Bunch asked his readers (because that is what we bloggers do): “What do you think should be done to save America’s news organizations, and especially (if you live here in town) the Philadelphia Daily News?” Notice that he was not asking to save the newspaper.

What followed was remarkable. You might have thought that bloggers – so often cast as the enemies of journalists – might have chanted nya-nya to Bunch and danced on his newspaper’s grave. Quite the contrary. Blogger Karl Martino, who has gathered together an amazingly robust community of Philadelphia bloggers at, met Bunch’s challenge and challenged other bloggers to do likewise. Rich discussion ensued.

The result of that discussion was an incredible convocation of professional journalists from the Inquirer and Daily News, local bloggers, and out-of-town thumbsuckers (that’s me) on a Saturday (March 25) in Philadelphia. Our charge: “All we have to do is create the future of local news in Philadelphia.” We grappled with how professional journalists and citizen-journalists should work together, how to maintain investigation, how to ensure credibility, how to serve the community, and how to pay for it. I was impressed and heartened to see these tribes come together in a common cause, all looking forward, not back. I blogged that day: “This is the day that the war ends. This isn’t journalism against bloggers anymore. It never was, really. This is journalists and bloggers together in favor of news.”

You see, it’s the news we need, not the paper.