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.