Paper Death?

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Pondering the future of newspapers in a wired world

I received an email yesterday from Doug Scott, a public relations practitioner, former media person and all-round deep thinker.

Scott attended the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Conference in New York recently, where he heard a keynote address by Seth Godin. Impressed by the dynamic presentation, Scott subscribed to Godin's blog, and then received this item, about the imminent death of newspapers.

Godin agrees with the popular view, that newspapers are dying. And this is just fine with him. He thinks the things that we get from newspapers be it opinion and editorials, sports, advertising, restaurants reviews and comics can easily be replaced on the web.

"What's left is local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news," Godin writes. "Perhaps 2% of the cost of a typical paper. I worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government or the local government can do what it wants without intelligent coverage. I worry about the abuse of power when the only thing a corrupt official needs to worry about is the TV news. I worry about the quality of legislation when there isn't a passionate, unbiased reporter there to explain it to us.

"Punchline: if we really care about the investigation and the analysis, we'll pay for it one way or another. Maybe it's a public good, a non profit function. Maybe a philanthropist puts up money for prizes. Maybe the Woodward and Bernstein of 2017 make so much money from breaking a story that it leads to a whole new generation of journalists.

"The reality is that this sort of journalism is relatively cheap (compared to everything else the newspaper had to do in order to bring it to us.) Newspapers took two cents of journalism and wrapped in ninety-eight cents of overhead and distraction. The magic of the web, the reason you should care about this even if you don't care about the news, is that when the marginal cost of something is free and when the time to deliver it is zero, the economics become magical. It's like 6 divided by zero. Infinity.

"I'm not worried about how muckrakers will make a living. Tree farmers, on the other hand, need to find a new use for newsprint."

I invited Doug Scott to offer his views on this topic, since it's clear he has opinions of his own. Scott was happy to oblige.

"I was intrigued with Godin's commentary about the end of newspapers, because it made me think about the way I use newspapers," Scott said. "As a public relations professional, I read the media every day. It's part of my job, however, I do not subscribe to any newspaper, although I used to get the Telegram and the Independent at home. I stopped for a number of reasons one of which was the decision by our local recycling company to no longer accept newspapers but that's another issue. And we know what happened to the Independent. The main reason I stopped getting the Telegram was because I no longer need to actually hold the paper in my hand or place it on my desk to read it. I get everything I need on line at the click of a button. So now I can pick and choose what I read. I read columns by Chantal Hebert and Jim Travers in The Toronto Star and Don Martin in the National Post, or Greg Weston in the Ottawa Sun. I have Pierre Bourque's Newswatch on my desktop. I check it every morning. I have Google Alerts looking for a number of issues that are important to me. I don't need the newspaper the way it is presented today and I'm a self-professed media hound."

I have my own views on this. First, I think newspapers may well die someday, but if this idea worries you, chances are you won't see it in your lifetime. When the people who still read newspapers those in their fourties, fifties and up finally dwindle in number, the newspapers they buy will disappear as well. The wired' generation, who grew up in an online world, will become the dominant cultural force. They will continue to consume their information online, and newspapers will become pretty much obsolete (though I am not convinced that printed material will disappear altogether, because the tactile experience of reading a book is more pleasurable, in my view, than reading a computer screen).

TV as we know it will also change. Many think it will converge completely with the computer terminal, as TV programs migrate fairly effortlessly online (with substantial changes to the old business model).

Printed publications, I fear, won't transition so easily not without some major casualties. It goes without saying that the printing and distribution side will see major job losses. I also think many publications will attempt the transition but fail, disappearing altogether.

Which brings me to Godin's insightful comment about Internet-based publishing: "The magic of the web is that when the marginal cost of something is free and when the time to deliver it is zero, the economics become magical. It's like 6 divided by zero. Infinity."

Fair enough. As a blogger, I, too, love the immediacy of the Internet. I love that I can create a blog or web page for virtually nothing, write whatever I please, and post my stories instantly. However, as much as readers seem to trust me to offer opinions, and sometimes news, unencumbered by any commercial or political agenda, it is still my opinion, and must be interpreted in that way.

Is Godin suggesting this as the information model of the future? Millions of bloggers, hammering out opinions and news,' with several billion readers trying to make sense of it all? No. We also need professional news organizations to gather the information accurately, and present it without taint of bias.

Some people say they are getting just that, whenever they log onto Yahoo, MSN or other news' sites. Yes, indeed. But take a closer look at those sites. They generate precious little information of their own, relying on links to external news organizations, including numerous print publications.

At this time, revenue from the print side of these publications is subsidizing the online presence, and most such sites could not survive as stand-alone entities (that is, without substantial downsizing). The advertising from print and presumably, copy sales cannot be offset by online advertising.

At this time.

The question is, can the successful business model of a newspaper with its many column inches of ad space work exclusively on the web, as more and more people go online for their information? It's possible. But the model would change dramatically. Will there be sufficient space in the already busy-looking online news formats to accommodate the hundreds of ads that appear in the daily paper? The only way to do so is to put the ads in rotation, appearing once in every 10 or 20 clicks, for example. The ads may be seen by fewer eyeballs, but the pay-per-click advantage could make for a more cost-effective advertising buy.

Doug Scott has a point of view on this as well: "Godin presents his argument with a question. When newspapers are gone, what will you miss? The assumption in his argument is that newspaper will go they will eventually disappear. What he laments is that when they do go they will take good journalism with them, in particular investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news. The big question in all of this is that if we accept Godin's assumption that newspapers will go, what will replace them in particular, how will good journalists like Hebert, Traverse, Westen, et al earn a living? Certainly not in writing blogs for money. There will be a shift to new media, particularly social media, and old media ways will die. What needs to be determined is who will be the gatekeepers in our new media/social media world who will pay them, and how will they be paid?"

Which brings me back to a key line from Godin's commentary: "If we really care about the investigation and the analysis, we'll pay for it one way or another."

Do we care enough? Or will print stories become shorter, lighter dumbed down' even for easier consumption online?

If the quality of investigative journalism deteriorates, society will suffer as well.

I will offer another view on this subject that of a newspaper editor in my next post.

Meanwhile, my views on this are still forming, and certainly not etched in stone. Perhaps there are factors and viewpoints I have not considered. If you think so, please join the fray by commenting below.

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Recent comments

  • Steve
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I enjoy the Saturday paper for a morning read with a coffee, and the Friday paper for the Home depot and Canadian tire flyers ( which I know I can get online but I would much rather have the hard copy). The rest of the week I read it online. So maybe a combination of both. People said that local radio stations would die because of internet radio...but they reinvented themselves and put in more local content. I think too traditional daily newspapers will die....a slow and painful death, but weekly / monthly papers will survive. after have to love the smell of newspaper ink and the look of black finger tips after you read it!