Press in peace

The Philadelphia Inquirer — which finds itself publishing at Ground Zero for change in the newspaper business — runs an op-ed package today about whether we need newspapers. The conclusion is obvious and I state the obvious (nonregistration copy here):

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.

I go on to tell the story of the norgs meeting in Philadelphia, where journalists and bloggers got together to try to reinvent the news organization of the very near future.

Richard Stengel, head of the National Constitution Center, argues the obvious — that we need journalism, especially locally, to watch government — but still concludes:

Newspapers are no longer just on paper. They are virtual. The distinction between what people read on paper and what they read on a screen is an increasingly irrelevant one. Newspaper companies must realize that. Does it matter whether you read a great columnist online, or on your BlackBerry, or on paper? It is about the information, the reporting, and the writing – not the medium in which it is delivered.

Hugh Hewitt praises paperless news and blogs and doesn’t do much for the old echo-chamber argument, pushing the notion that liberals are the ones holding onto the old press (huh?) and recommending only his conservative friends. His piece would have been stronger if he hadn’t tried to make paper liberal and online conservative.

Each morning, we awake to new mountains of information. Bloggers are the new Sherpas, leading their readers through those various ranges. Newspaper reporters and editors are the old Sherpas. Lots of folks – especially liberals and elites – still like the old Sherpas. The mainstream media – MSM – are populated overwhelmingly by left- and hard-left-leaning writers and editors, and few people even bother to argue the point anymore. American newspapers are not unlike American car companies: Market dominance made them lazy and uninterested in their customer base, and a lot of that base slowly melted away, even before the new media arrived. When blogs and talk radio and cable arrived and offered a choice to news consumers long disgusted with biased product, remaining center-right readers began to bolt.

I picture Philly-guy Atrios opening up his morning Inquirer and doing a spit-take.

The internet’s big enough for everyone, Hugh.

And then there is the apparently obligatory blog-bashing piece by Jonathan Last.

Nothing new in any of this… expcept that a newspaper is willing to print the first draft of its own obituary.

  • Spencer Hill

    We need news. We just do not need the newspaper. Though it is hard to carry your computer to the toilet or bed to read, electronic distribution seems to work best.

    My local weekly paper (The Kingstree News) is routinely two weeks behind on the news. No local sports coverage (HS, JHS, little league). I do not get the information I need like what happened at last nights County Council meeting or the town zoning board meeting. They give me fluff, not why the the town rec commission turned down money to build 2 tennis courts so they could build more baseball fields.

    Newspapers need to start thinking as news organizations just like the railroads began think as transportation companies or the will be supplanted by many small news organizations delivering their own content via the web.

  • Stewart

    I’ve never even seen the print edition of the NYTimes yet I read their website everyday…

  • I think the weekly news and opinion magazines may be the first victims (Time, TNR, the Nation, etc.).

    Not only is the news stale, but they now have their contributors posting online. So why wait a week to read an opinion piece when the same author has posted something newer online?

    The small opinion mags all complain about the cost of paper and postage and the small amount of advertising revenue they get. Going online only (even as a paid site) would cut their costs dramatically.

    The Nation now has web-only essays, print-only essays, some with overlap, and now blogging. I understand they are experimenting, but perhaps they are just unwilling to follow the trend to its logical conclusion…

  • Menlo Bob

    You seem to have missed Mr. Hewitt’s point. It’s not that conservatives own the internet. It’s that a product, newspapers, formerly dominated by left of center types, are forced to compete with all political stripes. That tends to dilute the monopoly and causes cranky newsmen to complain about words that appear without the aid of printing presses. It’s as if they believed that ink and paper were synonymous with truth.

  • somefeller

    “His piece would have been stronger if he hadn’t tried to make paper liberal and online conservative.”

    True, but that presupposes that Hewitt is a person who is intellectually honest and interested in the state of the media generally, and not that he a worthless GOP hack (note, I don’t use the word “conservative”, because Hewitt is more interested in party than principle) who is more interested in logrolling for his friends than he is in actually providing a discussion about the diversity of ideas out in the blogosphere.

  • Terry Garrett

    Having been in print media for twenty years, I appreciate the varied responses to its demise. It is, after all, a $60B+ (North America) industry that supports employment from the loggers who fell the trees, pressmen, truck drivers, forklift operators and many others who aren’t part of the journalist’s face we stamp on the fallen image of newspapers. They are the invisible, bluecollar folks swept into the currents of this economic force. Journalists, the good ones, will make the shift. So will executive managers.

    The economics of old media was based upon selling waste (unintended audience) at the same price as the targeted, intended audience. In most cases the waste was several times larger than the prize. The web has spoiled that formula and old media will never be the same.

    Newspapers are the last vestige of manufacturing in a modern media world. The knowledge workers will make the shift, but the laborers tethered to the manufacturing model won’t, unless they change careers altogether. It’s sad to see the hardship on them and their families. It is what we have accepted as the inevitability of technological progress.

    It’s not that everyone who wishes this wasn’t happening is a knowledge worker in a state of denial. There are others, probably more numerous, who are behind the economic eight ball. To them we can extend a nod of compassion as the newspaper industry begins its descent.

    I happen to be a knowledge worker and feel the pain too, but at least have some hope of making through to the other side. I actually feel a great deal of excitement that this disruption has created so many wonderful opportunities for improvement of media and those whom it would serve.

  • Kat

    I am sure there will come a better use for trees than to be a piece of leftist preaching paper.

  • This might be the case in US and other regions were access to the Internet is fairly easy and cheap, but certainly not all over the world. Also, in countries where the Internet gets filtered, only those online newspapers that are pro-government will have a chance to survive, (unless people all over the world would be able to have access to free wireless internet through satellites.)

  • Andy Freeman

    > Also, in countries where the Internet gets filtered, only those online newspapers that are pro-government will have a chance to survive

    How many of those places have unfiltered off-line newspapers?

    Or is censored off-line news better than censored on-line news?

  • Well I can just tell you about the case of Iran. All newspapers should self-censor their content or will be banned in Iran. But you still can find some alternative news in some of these newspapers that do not belong to the main body of the government, and such newspapers are mostly circulated around the country. If they will be banned, soon another newspaper will be opened mostly by the same staff. Still some alternative news can reach people in remote cities that do not have access to the Internet. But in case of websites, when they get filtered (by filtering I mean being blocked), even if they choose a new domain, they loose lots of their readers, because so many people do not find out about their new domain (simply because they are not familiar with the web very much or don’t subscribe to these news websites.) And no need to mention only a small percentage of Iranians use the Internet (the last statistics show 6 million users). Now a calculation is needed to see whether uncensored news that can reach a few people through the Internet is better or censored newspapers that might still have some alternative news and reach all over the country. I think free unfiltered wireless Internet that can reach all the country through satellites (and certainly not satellite services that have contract with Iran’s government) is better than both of them!

    Just as an example, a women’s website I working with was blocked in Iran. We changed the domain two times and its new domain is not filtered yet. But we lost more than half of our readers. However, the writers of the site sometimes can publish their articles in newspapers that have national circulation. By these examples I do not mean to prioritize the print media over the online media. I personally believe that online media has had a big effect on Iran’s women’s movement for example. I just think online media has still a way to go to have the effect of print media in some parts of the world that have access issue.

  • Erebus

    “pushing the notion that liberals are the ones holding onto the old press (huh?)”

    This is so disingenuous. The dead-tree press manipulated policy and elections for decades, permitting the chance of a Republican only after even liberal noses couldn’t stand a Johnson, Carter, or Clinton. Now that the leftist press is losing its grip on the electorate’s throat, they’re panicking, and you know it, Mr. Jarvis. Yes, “the internet’s big enough for everyone”, and that’s a problem for those who have come to believe the electorate can’t be trusted to goosestep to the left-of-center march.

  • I like holding a newspaper in my hands — especially when I’m reading in a cafe. I get my local news that way; national and international news I get on the Internet. I’m also a blogger and a blog-reader.

    I find it beyond laughable — this propaganda by Hewitt and friends — that conservative bloggers are the apex of truth-telling. And I’m not a liberal, but socially libertarian and real fiscal conservative (for example, I don’t think the government should fund schooling for the middle class and above [only for the poor] nor should tax dollars pay for NPR).

    There are plenty of lies and distortions all around. Left and right. The difference is, the right wing seems smarter and more organized about spreading them.

  • Oops…and a real fiscal conservative.

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  • Surprisingly, there are many people for whom the Internet is not part of their daily routine. Perhaps because of economics, technology illiteracy, or age, but newspapers will continue to have an audience. The Economist seems to be influential, although you’d be hard-pressed to find many folks in middle America who read it regularly. The influence of media is more about who reads them, then how many. As long as the right people continue to buy newspapers, they will have power. Diminishing, to be sure, but not going away anytime soon.

  • Toblerone2

    Perhaps blogs are viewed as the most pure form of journalism, simply because they are unedited. They are unfiltered. They are first-person accounts in many cases of events or feelings. So they more closely resemble one person’s view of the truth.

    Magazines have become saturated with advertising. And their stories sometimes suffer, but can contain good writing on interesting topics. But many magazines are eye candy with little substance.

    And newspapers? They have cartoons in them on Sunday. And lots of coupons for things I’ll never need, like replacement windows and free label-makers and junk-collectible “americana”……. and their news is just as disposable.

    I do think that the more “formal” papers (Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Washington Post, etc.) will survive long after the local papers have dried up and blown away. I still read USA Today online, for the headlines – but mostly because they have more pictures than most other sites. The AP wire by itself is a little dry for most readers.

  • Kevin Peters

    Newspapers are not going away. I still get the L.A. Times even though I detest many of their stances. The blogosphere won’t replace newspapers. They will slowly end the ability for the print media to monopolize and manipulate public opinion. The blogs will force the newspapers to improve and they will not be able to pass of obvious lies or distortions as easily as they did in the past. Some newspapers will fade away, the ones that adapt to the new realities will prosper. The L.A. Times was forced to include a wider variety of views on their opinion page because including only a few token conservative voices was costing them money. And this is good for both their liberal and conservative readers because they will get a wider variety of insights instead of the previous limited echochamber. The Hiltzek fiasco aside, they are also being forced to enter the blogosphere and eventually they will drop their arrogant self appointed priesthood attitude and treat the blogosphere as a legitimate source of news and opinion instead of a threat to the nation populated with knuckle dragging morons. Newspapers and the blog are joined at the hip and when both sides quit looking at the other as the enemy both sides will start focusing on quality rather then which tribe they belong to. I rip the MSM just as much as anyone else because I think they got flabby and they need the critique. Japan’s auto makers forced Detroit to quit putting out lousy product. Blogs will do the same to the MSM and the moment that the blogs start to rest on the laurels something else will come along to knock them down a peg or two. It is a win -win situation.

  • The L.A. Times is starting to include a wider variety of voices on their op-ed pages. They hired Matt Welch, an editor from Reason Magazine, and they’re publishing Cathy Seipp a lot. She just had a fantastic article this weekend on medical insurance vis a vis having lung cancer and actually needing to use the insurance to its limits. She’s a conservative, but that piece was neither conservative nor liberal; just extremely compelling. This dovetails with my belief that publishing “a variety of voices” doesn’t just mean hearing from conservatives, but hearing stuff that isn’t common knowledge. On a critical note, the LA Times op-ed still does that irritating thing where they publish unsigned editorials from the editorial board — I’d like to see them signed by the writer.

    While the LA Times’ news sections seem to be changing, the features section remains the same…very review-heavy and not a lot of fun, with a few old fogey first person columnists, and often terribly written first-person pieces on Thursdays. On a positive note, John Carroll did have the good sense to hire auto writer Dan Neil.

    They have this blog, Postcards From Paris, by this LAT lady they let move to Paris — their travel writer Susan Spano — that’s about the most tiresome, unfun blog you could possibly read; occasionally accompanied by blurry photos of nothing in particular. Contrast her paid blogging with the unpaid Paris group blog created by Laurie Pike —

    Finally, the LAT runs the usual “safe” advice columns, probably because their greatest concern is not creating engaged readers, but keeping little old ladies from writing angry letters…well, and maintaining seventh grade grudges against certain writers. My advice column, which often challenges conventional wisdom with reason and data, runs in papers across the country and actually beat Kinsley’s op-eds out for first place for “signed commentary” in the last LA Press Club awards. Of course, it’s banned from the LAT’s features section! (I’m not kidding: a features sub-editor actually wrote me a letter a few years back that said, best I can remember: “Never send us anything again. We’re content with the writers we have. We’re not seeking new writers.”) Meanwhile, I get between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors a day on my blog; many of them from LA; many of whom ask regularly why they can’t read me in the paper. Guess I’m just not boring enough to make it in some dailies!

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  • Scott Suttell

    I’d be more than happy for the paper I work for to become a purely electronic publication; who really needs the printing and distribution costs?

    But many readers and advertisers simply aren’t ready to make the switch. If we were to drop our print publication and go Internet-only, we’d likely lose at least one-third of our audience. That might be only a short-term problem (many might find us online if that was the only way to read the paper) but it’s a serious one on the revenue side.

    Any suggestions for how to speed up readers’ desires for Internet-only publications?

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  • In the near future I don’t see the future for newspapers.

  • It is quite obvious that somebody sees no future for nespapers. Wat a ridiculs opinion; written words have their own power; seeing on screen may have timely effects but written words have their own powers. If it were not then why we are reading and try toi understand the ded langauges. Today’s language English has made its impacts for centuries and its contribution to evry part of knowledge can not be ignored.

  • It is quite obvious that somebody sees no future for nespapers. What a ridiculous opinion; written words have their own power; seeing on screen may have timely effects. If it were not then why we are reading and try to understand the dead langauges. Today’s languages have made its impacts for centuries and its contribution to evry part of knowledge can not be ignored.