The Slow Death of Newspapers

by on August 30, 2007 · 0 comments

I agree with Jack Shafer about this:

Upon waking, I’m delighted to desack the morning papers, discard the never-read sections—classified, food, home, travel, real estate, health—and arrange the buffet before me. But even if all I’ve pre-read from the Web are the Page One headlines, the print stories don’t really pop out at me unless they’re packaged with a terrific photo I haven’t seen before. Horrible as it may sound, on many days the newsprint front page tastes of already chewed gum.

I’m not the average reader, but anecdotes convince me that the average reader is becoming more like me every day—reading tomorrow’s news today. This time-shift is as historically significant as the great migration of newspaper readers from afternoon to morning dailies, or the adoption of AM news radio by sequestered commuters. Where the newspaper was once considered the day’s complete news, it’s now just all-the-news-that-fits. The genuine news enthusiast trolls the AP wire, foreign news sites, and the usual aggregators for the biggest picture.

I think, however, that Shafer gives newspapers too much credit later in the piece:

As good as the Web is at keeping apace with the current, it isn’t very good at telling me when my news tank is full. The final editions of well-edited newspapers still do a better job of conveying the most vital news than does a browsing of the Web. It gives readers a yardstick with which to measure the news before they dive in. If I had just 10 minutes to catch up on what’s happening, I’d rather fan through the paper pages of the Times and Post than click my favorite sites. For decades, the Wall Street Journal has kept its busy readers abreast of the day’s most important stories with its Page One “What’s News” column. The idea is ripe for adaptation by other newspapers.

Certainly good editing is valuable, and outlets that provide it will continue to thrive. But paper doesn’t offer any inherent advantage on that score. I already feel like the front page of Google News gives me a pretty good overview of the day’s news. If you still find the paper newspaper’s editing superior, there’s no reason to think that will continue forever. Somebody’s going to figure out how to duplicate that functionality online, and once they do the inherent advantages of the ‘net will make it a better overall news source.

I think the way to view the newspaper is primarily as a legacy medium. People subscribe to newspapers not because they are intrinsically better, but simply because that’s how they are used to receiving their news and they’re disinclined to change. I suspect that most people who grow up getting their news via the web will never have any use for a paper newspaper. I haven’t—I subscribed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a year, but found that I couldn’t get in the habit of reading it regularly. The stories I found there were both stale and shallow. I’m sure the NYT and WSJ are better, but they have the same basic weaknesses of slow delivery and sharply limited space.

So lots of people who came of age in the 20th century may continue reading newspapers until the day they die. That will allow the newspaper to continue to be profitable for decades to come. But I suspect that anyone coming of age now will never have occasion to develop the newspaper-reading habit. They’ll get their news from news sites, blogs, podcasts, and whatever other new online sources come along. And as the newspaper’s older readers gradually die off, the newspaper format will die with it.

That said, the one advantage paper has (as Shafer acknowledges) is that we have yet to develop portable digital devices with the ruggedness and versatility of paper. This is why I don’t think books are going to go away any time soon, and long-format magazines like The Atlantic may continue to be popular—it’s more comfortable to curl up on the couch with a book or magazine than with a laptop. Likewise, there may be niches, such as mini-newspaper the Washington Post gives out to subway readers, that can continue to thrive by trading on the convenience and disposability of paper. But as far as I’m concerned, the big dailies don’t have any of these advantages. They’re too bulky to read on the subway or curl up with on the couch. People typically lay them flat on the breakfast table to read them, and in those cases they could just as easily be looking at a laptop screen.

If I ran a newspaper, I would start to view my organization as a web-based media outlet that happened to print a paper-based digest for the benefit of older readers. That will seem a little strange at the outset, since most of the revenues will still be coming from the paper edition, but as the newspaper-reading crowd dies off over the next 60 years or so, it will be an increasingly accurate description of the situation.

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