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The Paper goeth… into the… niiiiight?

2011 May 19

Is The Paper really quitting?

I’ve been prompted to return to The Sick Man of Media by a recent post by author Sean Kleefeld, in which he expressed skepticism toward an Editor & Publisher article on the “state of digital transformation of newspapers.” Having skimmed the article, I think it looks pretty unconvincing, myself.

Kleefeld’s own comments, though, got me thinking about what exactly newspapers should or even can do. He ends his post:

Book publishers are changing how they do things. Comic book publishers are changing how they do things. TV is changing. Radio is changing. Movies are changing. Every media format out there seems to be moving faster than the glacial pace that newspapers are. That they seem bound and determined to try to hold on to the exact same position they had in society 100 years ago just strikes me as insanely mind-boggling. There’s no reason that newspapers HAVE to die, but if they keep digging their own graves, it’s hard to see a world in which they don’t.

I wonder, though. It seems like comics, movies, TV and radio are in some sense experiences: stuff you listen to, stuff you watch and listen to, stories you read told through pictures.

I think a newspaper, however, may be in something of a different position due to the fact that it’s more of a physical format than an experience. True, one could see the paper’s experience as text which you read accompanied by some images. That can be, and indeed is, delivered in other formats. But then, you can adapt a book to other formats arguably because the common experience of things we call “books” is rather more broad and flexible than the common experience of the newspaper; indeed, as I and others have noted, our use of the term “book” for electronic-media products is arguably just a matter of habit as the term otherwise seems to defy any conceivable significance in electronic publishing.

In any event, the nature of book publishers and what they do and how they function still seems to have fairly natural validity within electronic media, even if their products cease to be “books” in any way other than name.

I’m not sure, however, that it’s at all obvious how the organization of a newspaper adapts to other formats. Or earns revenue, of course. Last I heard, newspapers still do proportionately far better in terms of print-ad revenue than electronic-media-ads. And of course, subscription revenue has persistently proven even more print-bound, in the face of repeated efforts to migrate it to electronically-published content.

In some ways, it seems like the newspaper as we’ve known it may turn out to be kind of an accident of history, in which publishing and distribution technologies, advertising economics, and social structures happened to align just so for a couple of hundred years to create a vehicle for professional journalism in every city.

If, as seems to be the case, this alignment of factors is now falling apart, I’m not sure that even the basic concept of the newspaper remains recognizably valid. And if that’s the case, admittedly a very arguable “if,” then I’m not sure there’s any clear adaptation path for newspapers and what they have provided us.

Mark Contreras ends the item at Editor & Publisher by declaring, on behalf of the newspaper industry, “…nobody can do what we do. Nobody has the infrastructure, the history, or the responsibility.”

Maybe that’s so, maybe it isn’t; but even if it is so that doesn’t guarantee that someone or something will always go on doing what the newspaper does. Maybe, in fact, nothing will precisely replace the newspaper, and it will be society as a whole which finds itself having to adapt, for better or worse, instead.

3 Responses
  1. May 20, 2011

    I think you’re touching on the problem newspapers are having that other media are addressing in that notion of ‘the experience.’ If you look at newspapers as simply a collection of reporting on events, then yes, it’s not unique to newspapers and easily replicable (and improved upon) by other outlets.

    But I think the newspaper CAN be viewed as an experience that is unique. Get your mindset into a 1950s sitcom. It’s Sunday morning. Wally and Beaver raced down the stairs and out the door with their baseball gloves, and you won’t see them until dinnertime. June’s been up for an hour or two, has showered, gotten dressed and started making pancakes and bacon. You come downstairs in your robe and slippers, open the front door, take in the breath of crisp morning air, and pick up the newspaper off the front stoop. You fold it up under your arm, walk back inside, kiss the wife and sit down for breakfast scanning the front page for the day’s weather and sports scores. After breakfast, you head into den, sit your leather wingback and triumphantly open the double page newspaper spread to start reading Pages 2 and onward.

    Sure, that particular scenario is a bit hokey, but that’s precisely what newspapers aren’t doing! How many black and white images are floating in your head of an older man with a sensible haircut enjoying a Rockwellian morning leisurely reading the paper? Reading the paper USED to be an experience. The sheer size of the paper meant that you could envelope your entire field of vision with news and literally hide/pause the rest of your immediate surroundings.

    But they’re not trying to be that. They’re trying to compete with the internet for something the internet is phenomenally better at. Newspapers COULD present themselves as an experience, I think. They couldn’t reach the broad audiences they used to have, but it’s still doable. “Want to take some time to really absorb the news? Want to shut out the shouting matches that pass for journalism on TV? Pick up The Times and wrap yourself and your morning coffee with what you REALLY need to know.” But that’s catering to a niche audience (people trying to slow down) with a more limited product (the important stuff, not everything). I think there’s potential there, but in a radically different way than there was 100 years ago.

    Like I said in my original piece (thanks for linking, BTW) I don’t think newspapers HAVE to go away. I don’t think it’s inevitable. But their unwillingness (or, I suppose, inability) to adapt to a changing environment will kill them off.

  2. Matt permalink
    May 20, 2011

    Appreciate the lengthy comment… I can’t really disagree with any of your remarks, and what I’m going to offer in the way of further comment is probably veering into the realm of semantics, FWIW.

    Essentially, what I see as being in question here is what is “a newspaper” and what it is that any given party, but especially newspapers-as-organizations, are interested in preserving when we speak of avoiding a die-off of “newspapers.”

    What you describe certainly seems plausible, and would produce physical objects that most of us would recognize as newspapers, but I’m not sure that the organization behind those objects would be much like what we have today in terms of the newspaper business. (Which you may well intend.) I assume that the question would come down to economics: such a publication could make money, I’m sure, but how many of them could make money and how much could they make? And how many journalists would they support?

    I don’t know, but I tend to imagine that the stable end result (to whatever extent we can even use such a term) would be an enormously-reduced number of publications, relying on wire services for the bulk of their content plus a modest amount of locally-produced news in the largest cities; staff would probably be a handful of people mostly responsible for selecting and organizing content rather than producing it.

    Arguably, newspapers have already been drifting in this direction anyway; if they’re doing so in a poorly-coordinated fashion, however, I would submit that it’s probably because they really don’t want to go in that direction.

    If I may use an analogy, I think of it like the extinction of the dinosaurs. Nowadays, it can be argued that in some sense dinosaurs did not truly die out but, instead, are still around and simply called “birds.” Yet I believe that most of us would still consider dinosaurs and birds entirely different things; whatever qualities seem essential when we use the term “dinosaur” seem entirely absent from their alleged descendants. And thus dinosaurs as a family may have evolved rather than died out, but if so they evolved to such an extent that they are no longer recognizably the same thing. And either way, then, the bottom line is that “dinosaurs” ain’t around no more.

    That’s how I see the prospect of newspapers evolving as you suggest. In this case, it would preserve something that we the general public would still recognize as “newspapers,” but from the industry’s own perspective I think that it would be another case of evolving one’s self out of existence. I think that most people working at newspapers probably have relatively little interest, in truth, in preserving physical objects which we know as “newspapers.” I’m sure there’s at least some sentimental desire for such, but all the same I suspect that tomorrow’s fish-wrapper is actually what Mark Contreras and others have the least interest in preserving. I suspect what they most want to preserve is the overall large industry of robust, busy organizations of writers, photographers and editors based in every city in the land.

    Not saying that this is possible, and to be honest I suspect that it probably isn’t. But from newspapers’ perspective, any adaptation which inherently assumes the loss of those characteristics is probably seen, with some justification, as being no better than extinction. And given that the former would require a lot of immediately-painful effort, well… why go to the trouble?

  3. May 20, 2011

    OK, I see where you’re coming from. Very valid point, beyond the semantics, I think.

    I still find it mind-boggling that they’re not addressing any of their real issues though. Whether they ‘re interested in preserving the artifact of ink on newsprint or their own livelihoods as journalists/reporters, they’re continuing with their out-dated business model, seemingly oblivious to the world around them.

    Although I suppose those who ARE interested in being journalists are the ones who’ve already moved on to Slate or whomever.

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