Der Spiegel & the fate of newspapers

Spiegel Online asked me to join a conversation about the fate of newspapers, prompted by Axel Springer’s sale of its local publications. The German translation is here. And here is the English text:

dertagGutenberg’s magnificent machine industrialized information and communication. That has lasted almost 600 years. Now the internet forces us to question every industrial-age assumption about every business, including news.

Journalists have been gatekeepers and lecturers who synthesized information into narratives that they controlled, their work subsidized by bundling news into publications that also delivered nonnews — entertainment, sport, lifestyle — which drew audience and advertising. It was a lovely oligopoly while it lasted. But it is over. The Onion has written print’s obituary.

Now who says that news must come on paper, in articles, once a day, the same for all, and from a newsroom, let alone from a journalist? Are we in the content business, producing and protecting a scarce commodity? Or shouldn’t we come to see news as a service whose outcome is not products on paper or pages on screens but instead informed people and communities?

The internet gives journalists unprecedented opportunities to reimagine our relationships with the public we serve; the forms that news can take; and the business models that can support it.

Relationships: Using the net and its services — Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram — as platforms, the public can now share what they know and what they witness on their own, without mediators — that is, without media. But there is still a need for journalists, perhaps greater than ever. Journalists must add value to that flow of information, confirming facts, debunking rumors, finding sources, adding context and explanation, and, most importantly, asking the questions and getting the answers that are not in the flow — that is: reporting.

News organizations can also act as platforms for communities to share information. Take, for example, Waze, the app Google is trying to buy that enables countless commuters to automatically and inexpensively share traffic anywhere, serving individuals better than mass media — radio reports — ever could. Waze also learns where we live and work. Does your newspaper know that about you?

Forms: Just as news publications are being unbundled, so are news articles. The single narrative is being broken up into separate assets: what’s new may come from Twitter; background from Wikipedia; details from a database; quotes from YouTube; explanation from a graphic. This allows each of us to traverse a news event in our own way. Are journalists still storytellers? Only when that’s the best way to impart information.

Our business models: Ah, here’s the hard one. We cannot preserve old models in a new reality. Just because we used to sell access to content and had pricing power over advertising, there is nothing to say that is our right to continue.

In our new balance sheet, the net brings greater efficiency and considerable cost savings, eliminating manufacturing and distribution costs and enabling specialization and collaboration: Do what you do best and link to the rest, I always say.

Our value, I believe, will come from building relationships with people as individuals, no longer as a mass. That is the core of Google’s business model: delivering relevance and recognizing value because it knows what each of us is looking for, where we are, and what we want. Those are signals Google is equipped to gather, analyze, and act upon. Media’s content generates signals about interests and needs. So we in media must learn to use that as the basis of building new relationships and extracting greater value from them.

It is my fondest hope that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will bring his expertise in building relationships and relevance to his purchase of The Washington Post, turning it from a content factory into a platform and information service for a wiser Washington.

I loved newspapers. My basement is filled with clips from them, so proud am I still of my bylines in print. I loved magazines. I started one and every week bought them by the pound. Whenever I’ve foretold the death of print, someone will say, “But people like paper.” Yes, I respond, and people used to like horses. But horses were economically (and environmentally) unsustainable and we moved on.

So move on. What matters isn’t newspapers. What matters is news and journalism and how they can help communities organize their knowledge to better organize themselves. That is my definition of journalism.