Ezra and Matt on the Decline of the Newspaper

by on July 27, 2007 · 2 comments

Smart comments on the death of newspapers from Ezra Klein:

The heyday of newspapers had them operating amid a scarcity of information. The average citizen in Omaha, Tallahassee, or even Los Angeles simply couldn’t collect information from DC or Nairobi, couldn’t call up yesterday’s presidential speech, couldn’t choose from thousands of content sources and millions of blogs and dozens of cable news channels. Newspapers, due to their wide array of reporters, their investment-heavy text transmission infrastructure, and their near-monopolies in individual markets, added a ton of value in getting consumers information they couldn’t otherwise access. That’s changed.

Now information is abundant, even too abundant. What readers need is interpretation, filters, guides. The media — dare I say it? — needs to mediate. That’s where they can add the value. The basic stenography that was valuable in one age isn’t worthless in this one, but it’s simplistic, and not nearly enough.

Further, we’re not merely dealing with an era in which information has become overwhelmingly abundant, we’re caught in a moment when all sides have become exquisitely sophisticated at spinning it, at publicizing what they want heard, distorting what scares them, drowning out what hurts them, discrediting what attacks them. So not only is there too much for the average consumer to deal with, it’s not even clear what they should deal with, what’s honest, who can be trusted. This is dicier territory, of course, but I think those who fret over the newspaper’s capability to serve this guiding function give insufficient thought to how odd the concept of objective news coverage has always been, and how much more potential there was for abuse when there was nearly no in-market competition.

And Matt Yglesias:

Yesterday, your local newspaper’s comparative advantage was being a newspaper it didn’t need to cover any particular area of life better than alternative sources. The Boston Globe isn’t, in a classical sense, in direct competition with ESPN. But once it’s all websites then, yeah, if you want local sports fans to read your sports coverage it’s going to need to be better than the coverage offered in sports specialty sites.

To me, that sounds implausible. Why should your local paper be good at covering local news, and be good at covering national news, and be good at movie and television criticism, and good at covering major sports, and have a solid book review section, and maybe something about cooking, etc., etc., etc.? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with trying to be good at everything simultaneously, but it’s actually very hard. The most useful contemporary music reviews will probably be done by an organization that specializes in covering the subject. Similarly, sports specialty sites will have the best sports coverage. A handful of movie critics could satisfy the entire nationwide demand for professionally-written movie reviews, etc.

What’s left for the local newspaper — or newspaper-like website — is to cover the local news. This is an important task, a crucial social function. There’s an audience for it. But it’s a radically scaled down vision of what the mid-sized newspaper should be doing. Paring papers down to this function would result in a veritable holocaust of newspaper writers, just as the digital transition has already eliminated an untold number of typesetting jobs and so forth.

One thing that’s worth mentioning is that while I think they’re right that the death of local newspapers is inevitable, it will also be a very slow process. My parents still read the newspaper. I suspect they’ll continue to do so until the day they die, which is (I hope) 30 to 40 years away. Which means that print subscriptions and print advertising will continue to be a major revenue source for the next 20 years. And that, in turn, will make it difficult for mid-sized papers like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Minneapolis Star Tribune to focus on Internet-based media opportunities. The print paper will still need movie reviews, national news coverage, etc because that’s what old people expect to find in their newspapers. And after producing all that content, it won’t leave much room in a shrinking budget to spend on developing new Internet-oriented content. Add to that the institutional inertia Ezra describes, and I expect they’ll find the transition enormously difficult.

Previous post:

Next post: