Are the rumors of the death of newspapers exaggerated? Posted by: McQ
on Wednesday, July 05, 2006
But make no mistake, newspapers are weathering a sea-change. And Mark Morford, echoing Slate's Jack Shafer, pretty well explains the why and the wherefore in two short paragraphs:
I shall now refer you to Slate magazine's Jack Shafer, who nails it in a recent piece explaining the Incredible Shrinking Newspaper, where he notes that papers are indeed dying. But so what? They always have been, ever since radio swooped in 80 years ago and took a huge bite of the media market, followed by TV, the Internet, blogs, podcasts, DVDs, microwave ovens, talking refrigerators and the little RFD chips they can implant into your retina so they can beam Daily Kos headlines straight into your subcortex.
Shafer makes the very salient point that smart media companies are already divesting like mad, exploring and buying up alternative media streams, figuring out new ways to transmit the same old information. But here's the kicker: While print papers may be an increasingly smaller niche media product, they're still a very respectable — and profitable — one, and they still tell an investigative story like no one else and they still cost less than a cup of coffee or a condom or an M-80, and hence they will not disappear in your lifetime. And given how we're Americans, our lifetime is the only one that matters.
Two points to add. Newspapers aren't going to go "out of business". They're simply going to change how they do business (if they're to survive). Obviously that may mean smaller print circulation. They're in the news and opinion business but as we all know, printing on dead-trees isn't the only way to provide that product. OTOH, for many like me, the day doesn't start right if I don't have my morning paper to peruse. And yes, I know I could do the same thing online, but there's something much more enjoyable about a cup of coffee and a newspaper while sitting in an easy chair. Habit I suppose. Certainly a habit newspapers want to cultivate.
I recently read an article where newspapers who've started blogs on their sites have been gathering information on which stories attract the most readers and which don't. Unsurprisingly they've found that local coverage is the most read and discussed. Want national? Go online. It's everywhere. Want regional and local? Nothing delivers it better than a newspaper for precisely the reason Morford describes ... in depth, investigative coverage which no other medium is structured to do better.
Secondly: opinion. This has been the second part of the stock and trade of newspapers since their inception. It is how the media persuades, becomes activist in championing some ideas and turning public opinion against others. As I've noted in my own local paper, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, while national opinion makers are still and integral part of the daily read, more and more opinion about local events is evident. That's not to say this is new, it just seems to be expanded.
I see an expanded role in the future for opinion journalism if newspapers are to continue to prosper. Controversy sells and there's no better way to do that than strongly stated opinions with names attached to them. So while anonymous editorials are fine, names and faces bring more readers and more reaction. That keeps the paper dynamic and controversial. And nothing sells like controversy.
Morford obliquely addresses the point with some amusing hyperbole:
Ah, but the publics perception of newspapers' ultimate doom is still amusing. Hissing jingoist right-wing readers of this very column (and there are plenty) love to tell me that they think The Chronicle's subscription numbers aren't skyrocketing anymore because, well, because writers like me are included in its pages.
It is deeply flattering indeed. They believe I can cause thousands of readers to abandon the paper because in preaching to a choir of like-minded, intelligent, well-lubricated liberals and by insisting on referencing sex and love and organic pantheistic gods that do not demand cash or hate gay people, I am repelling an entire contingent of frowning conservative readers who deeply believe in SUVs and guns and hating gays. It's sort of adorable in its rather brutal ignorance.
On the other hand, dejected left-wing readers love to believe papers like The Chronicle are losing readers and relevance because they've been whipped and muzzled by the GOP's vicious anti-media crackdown lo these past five years, because BushCo's Nazi-like propaganda techniques try to make major papers think it's somehow inappropriate to report on secret government programs, of which 9 out of 10 violate your rights six ways from Sunday and of which many would make Nixon — not to mention Goebbels — green with envy.
It is those perceptions that keep bringing ideologically disparate readers back. So, it seems rather obvious that feeding those perceptions, at least on the opinion side might not be a bad thing.
Newspapers are indeed working through a number of changes, but Morford correctly points out that it has had to work through changes before. The media is dynamic with new venues providing more and more convenient ways to deliver content, to include news and opinion. Newspapers do have a niche and Morford, in my opinion, correctly identifies that niche (depth of coverage, investigation) but leaves out the most vital point: concentrate on local coverage.
National and international news is available everywhere. And most papers simply reprint AP or occasionally UPI stories whole. By the time their customers get their papers these stories are stale and most have already seen enhanced coverage via Internet or TV. But local stories don't have the same 24/7 cable news coverage problem, so the stories don't become stale. In fact most of them never even make the national and international broadcasts.
In-depth local coverage, on the news side, with expanded opinion pieces (and here they're not limited to local) on the opinion side is the future of newspapers. The local coverage will sell the paper and the opinions will provide the spicy value-added that makes newspapers a must have for consumers. But competing with the more dynamic venues in the areas in which they hold a sizable advantage will only see newspapers live up to pejorative some have labeled it with, the "dinosaur media", and, it will certainly go the way of those creatures if it pursues that path.
Of course people are predicting something’s death. It’s a common, psychological thing we humans do. I hear all the time how "Religion is fading and will be wiped away in 10 years" from atheists, how the GOP is imploding and will be gone by 2008 from the MKUltras of the world, how, by the time my children start school, Windows based PC’s will be a thing of the past and Macs will rule the world, yadda yadda yadda.
It’s a combination of hope and projection.
Still, you have a point. I get a 10-20 page local only newspaper every 2 or 3 days (from the Tampa Tribune) and I’m more interested in reading it than the Tampa Tribune. The news it has concerns me more than Ken Lay croaking from Rove’s death ray.