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January 22, 2007

The End of Print?

John Nichols, doing a fairly good job reprising the "World Without Newspapers?" article you see every so often, writes:

European and Asian media owners have been a good deal more creative and aggressive in their response to the changing circumstances of newspapers. And in many cases, though certainly not all, they have been more successful than their American counterparts in maintaining the popular appeal of print publications. European publishers have, for instance, been far more willing to invest in radical redesigns of papers and new printing and distribution systems. And they have long recognized something that is close to unimaginable to those who guide American newspapering: that taking strong front-page stands on issues such as the genetic modification of food and global warming--becoming what the British refer to as a "campaigning newspaper"--does not inspire charges of bias but instead draws readers to groundbreaking journalism.

While the Chicago Tribune surely gets high marks for its attention to the death penalty issue, newspapers like Britain's Independent embark on dozens of campaigns in the course of a year--even going so far as to give their front pages over to promotions of rallies and protest marches against everything from poverty in Africa to the war in Iraq. But it's not just that European publishers are more engaged and adventurous. European citizens and their governments have a tradition of taking seriously the role newspaper journalism plays in building a civil and democratic society.

I tend to be rather sanguine about the future of print, though not in its current form. Newspapers currently expend a fair number of resources doing certain things very poorly, or replicating the efforts of other organizations. That was fine when the information junkie had few alternatives. It's less so when the world offers limitless avenues for data accumulation.

But all this really means is that newspapers will begin following magazines and specialty newspapers (like The Wall Street Journal) and seeking to make themselves indispensable to certain audiences. Some of those audiences may be ideological, and you'll see campaigning newspapers akin to the British Guardian or Fox News. Some will be professional, and you'll see dedicated foreign bureaus that do nothing save in-depth reporting on global issues, in much the way National Journal does for Congress. All will be, in their way, more relevant. The bloodless, fearful paradigm of "objective" reporting has alienated all while informing none, and it will likely come to a close.

As for the civic space supposedly provided by newsprint, that's always struck me as wildly overblown. The involvement and interactivity offered by blogs and Craigslist and their kin dwarf the paltry opportunities of Letters to the Editor page. Newspapers have long upheld that they're some sort of portal to community engagement, but does the metro section of the Washington Post really knit the community more tightly than Craigslist's Rants and Raves, or Tyler's ethnic dining guide, or DCist, or...?

January 22, 2007 | Permalink


For web-savvy people in dense urban centers, your Craigslists and DCists are going to function as a social binder more than the local newspaper. One thing we forget in this cocoon is that most people aren't web-savvy urban dwellers. For the great big numbers of Americans who live in suburbs/exurbs/small towns, and who don't think of the internet as the portal to the world, newspapers are still the focal point of civic activity. School announcements, events calendars, classified ads, the debate of small-scale public issues that come before zoning boards and school committees - those are the pressing concerns of very wide segments of people, and they're still the province of newsprint, at least for the next few decades. I always disparaged the importance of the civic space created by local newspapers until I spent two and a half years writing for one.

Posted by: Seth D. | Jan 22, 2007 2:56:51 PM

To clarify the above, while the Metro section of the post doesn't exclusively create community engagement for DC residents, the Malden Observer and Avon Grove Sun do for residents of Malden, MA and West Grove, PA.

Posted by: Seth D. | Jan 22, 2007 2:59:34 PM

Yeah, but there's no reason that that role can't be filled by malden-observer.com and its ilk. DCist works; why not West Grove-ist? Remember the role of generational replacement--in 20 years, the proportion of people who think of the internet as the portal to the world will have risen dramatically.

Posted by: Dan Miller | Jan 22, 2007 3:04:14 PM

Right. The young folks in those areas also don't read newsdpapers -- that's the problem. But while not everyone is web-savvy, they're getting savvier, and if we're going to go through so intense an upheaval as the much-heralded End of Print, I imagine it's not too tough for folks to get onto the "ist" sites as well.

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 22, 2007 3:12:48 PM

When I read the Nichols article last week, a couple items jumped out for me:

The result has been a hemorrhaging of journalism jobs, as reporters and editors join manufacturing workers in the ranks of "disposable Americans." More than 44,000 news industry employees, at least 34,000 of them newspaper journalists, have lost their jobs over the past five years.

The Internet certainly devotes more attention to politics. But, for the most part, the information discussed is still gathered by newspaper reporters, and while a few high-profile journalists have begun to migrate from old-fashioned newsrooms to the blogosphere, they tend to arrive as commentators rather than gatherers of news. The web has yet to emerge as a distinct journalistic force--let alone one that speaks with the authority at the local, state or regional level of a traditional daily newspaper. While the web may someday be home to sites that generate the revenues needed to pay reporters and editors to produce meaningful journalism, that day has yet to arrive in any real sense.

(quoting David Maraniss:)"What is really frightening is that newspapers appear to be dying so quickly that they may disappear, or at least disappear as a serious part of our lives, before we have a replacement for them. That's a grave danger to democracy," says Maraniss. "As flawed as journalism as practiced by newspapers is, we don't have another vehicle for journalism that picks up where newspapers leave off. That's what we should be worried about. Maybe newspapers can be replaced, probably newspapers can be replaced. But journalism can't be replaced--not if we're going to function as any kind of democracy."

I'm not sure why Wall Street investment bankers insist that newspaper produce twice the avg. percentage of profit of other companies - but they do, and consolidation of outlets have given WS great power.

I think it is true that full-time, paid journalists (with resources enough to do the job) are essential to making democracy work, whether at the local, state, national or international level. Who will pay them?

Maybe the solutions need to re-fragmentize or specialize as Ezra has suggested, but perhaps the key issue (in my mind) is how to do this in a capital-driven economy. Maybe this has to be seen as a not-for-profit entity (like The American Prospect, or Nation) - whether de-facto or de-jure)).

Bloggers depend on journalists to do the digging on a story, whether fairly researched and told or not. Maybe mega-blogs like TPM and Huffington Post will someday be able to routinely have street-level journalists doing the story, but so far it mostly opinion writers rather than fact and story gatherers.

Who's going to pay for international coverage, like in Baghdad or Bejing? Can we depend upon local news gatherers to provide what we need to intelligently need to know while evaluating our nations policy on world affairs?

Even specialization has its limits. PC Magazine, once a thick compendium of product comparisons and other analysis essential to making buying choices and optimizing PC use, is now a thin gruel of product hype. They couldn't afford the in-depth analysis anymore because advertisers spent their money elsewhere.

Print media has almost always been a strange brew of reader subscriptions/newstand sales and advertiser payments. But sdvertising won't sustain internet sites capable of having a paid journalists in DC, London, Tel Aviv and whereever.

In the midst of the plenty of a highly linked internet world on almost any topic, we have a desert forming of real reporting on vital topics that affect the country as a whole. Can we do without this journalistic reporting? I worry that we can't, and don't see how it is replaced in an electronic world.

The dark ages were dark because knowledge and information were not available to the average person (and they weren't educated to use it). This is a formula for aristocratic rule by the few, not a democracy ruled by the many.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 22, 2007 4:01:53 PM

For a number of reasons (cost, time expended, vast amounts of accumulated old newspapers) I no longer read the print edition of my local newspaper and as a consequence there is local news that I am simply no longer aware of. As it is the only daily newspaper in a city of 150,000 and a county of about a half million, there are no other news outlets, including the paper's own web edition, that cover the community as comprehensively as the newspaper. It's nice to think that at some point other news outlets will arise to compete with the paper for local news, but so far I haven't seen it happen and there's no reason to believe that it will.

Posted by: truthy | Jan 22, 2007 7:09:24 PM

One huge difference between the US and UK newspapers. US papers depend upon classifieds for a very large protion of their income. That's what's being eaten by Craig's List etc.
UK papers (the nationals, anyway) do not.
In a way you could say that the UK papers went nationla with the railways in about 1910 or so. The US newspapers are just doing so with the web (given the much greater distances.)
So I would expect those (few) US newspapers that survive to become, as said above, campaigning newspapers, with a very definite ideological tint to them.
More on this at length from a couple of years ago:

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Jan 23, 2007 7:59:03 AM

I can second Seth D.'s comments. I started working at my current job almost a year ago, a newspaper whose coverage area is 20 small towns in a rural county (tagline: "Vermont's only twice-weekly newspaper") :), and the question of what's happening to newspapers inevitably came up during my interview. But the publisher was and is unconcerned, saying that the market for local news is as strong as ever (if not stronger, thanks to the declining quality of coverage at larger papers).

And yet I can see where truthy comes from too — because I read the paper less than I should. In my case, that's because it has little concrete effect on me. I have no kids, and am (relatively, in some ways) new and unconnected to the community, so I'm only tangentially affected by what are big issues to most of my neighbors. Truthy, is the same true of you? What's the city you mention? And more to the point, since it's a pretty big city you're talking about, how much coverage does it give to issues like Seth mentioned or similar ones?

By this logic, then, the way for papers like the New York Times to compete with USA Today or CNN is not to be even more vapid and graphically-oriented, but to break up into a dozen or more papers to provide in-depth coverage to each major neighborhood and borough.

Newspapers can't compete with the Internet in terms of offering such a wide breadth of coverage, and they can't compete with the TV in terms of infotainment, but papers are better suited to covering local news than either, and they will remain that way for the medium-to-long term. Because it's not just a matter of the members of the public being Internet-savvy, but the selectboard or city council or whatever also being Internet-savvy, and their secretary, and the school board, and (probably most importantly) a look at it all that's at least a tiny bit unbiased, and...

Posted by: Cyrus | Jan 23, 2007 11:16:16 AM

I'm 27 and still like to read the print every morning. I can't imagine having to turn on the computer and stare at a screen first thing in the morning to get my news. I do that all day as it is!

Posted by: Adrock | Jan 23, 2007 12:37:55 PM

I don't disagree with the article's general thrust (certainly the US print media's lethargy in the face of the internet and declining revenues and dogged adherence to ridiculous conventions has amazed me), but I wouldn't hold up the Independent as the best role model. It's the lowest circulation broadsheet in Britain (outside the specialist press), and even political sympathisers like myself find its hectoring tone annoying at times. Still, by and large the US political discourse would probably be better if the pressresembled the British broadsheets more. Although what would be even better were if the US broadcast news resembled the British more. American newspapers do have redeeming features that make them stand out from their British and European counterparts in a good way, but you can't say the same about TV news.

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