In my interview earlier this year with journalist Steve Roberts, I asked the longtime print reporter for his thoughts on the much-ballyhooed “death of the newspaper,” which bloggers and even some high-profile newspaper editors couldn’t stop discussing. He denied claims that print journalism was dying out, arguing instead that the business would find a way to adapt to a new model. Perhaps, as a lifelong reporter, he just couldn’t admit the truth, that journalism that “rubs off on your hands” was indeed heading the way of the Dodo. Or perhaps he is one of the last rational minds in a sea of hysterics.
That may sound like a bit of an overstatement, especially considering that no one can deny that newspapers are indeed troubled in the Internet era, but I still recall thinking that Roberts made a lot of sense. Are newspapers’ numbers (pick any among circulation, stock prices, ad sales) dropping, and is there cause for grave concern? Absolutely, that is undeniable. Will the business be able to evolve and adapt with the changing nature of media and find new business models to ensure its survival? That has yet to be determined, but why not?
A piece by Eric Alterman in The New Yorker this month questions the viability of print media and all but heads out to go tombstone shopping. Truly, the article’s evidence is compelling and accurate, but I had nagging doubts while reading. Alterman points out the usual figures of dropping circulation, slowing advertising sales, and the increase in those who turn to online sources to get their news. He trots out New York Times editor Bill Keller, whose doom and gloom speech to the staff of the nation’s largest daily sent many into a cold panic.
He lists the dismal Wall Street figures, the plunging value of corporations that years ago were selling for billions, and the general sense of impending doom felt by many, even longtime news veterans like Keller. He also cites one of the largest problems for newspapers, particularly for local papers in smaller markets, one I also covered with Roberts: Craigslist. It’s true, Craigslist is not only plaguing innocent homeowners with its free classified ads these days, newspaper classifieds revenues are also taking a severe beating. Free content is one thing, it can be supported by advertising, but free services are quite another–why would anyone pay for something that they can get for free?
Combine these issues with the breathtaking speed of today’s news cycle (which is all but nonexistent), and inability of the print versions of a newspaper to keep up (as one California columnist put it, newspapers lack the ability to shout “It’s raining!” at the reader when it starts to rain), and it looks like a whole lot of reasons for concern.
What could bring it back to life?
Roberts argued it would be a changing revenue model. He pointed out that this isn’t something that can change overnight, but which must evolve over time. Newspapers have already begun widespread adoption not only of websites, but of blogs and other online-only content. They are drawing distinctions between their print and online versions. Quick hits and fast takes? Go online. In-depth research, analysis and think pieces? Seek out the print version. By absorbing the new into the old, traditional print journalism stands a chance of surviving, so long as stockholders can remain calm.
The ultimate fate of the “dead tree” newspaper remains unclear, but I have a difficult time believing that an industry that’s lasted and thrived more than 300 years can be wiped out completely by only a few years’ worth of technological revolution. Alterman himself points it out in his article–in the not-too-distant past, owning a newspaper was
like a “license to print money.” The argument can be made that the industry is experiencing its first real downturn.
Perhaps the greatest element necessary to breathe new life into print journalism is the least tangible. Time. It is only in the last few years that newspapers have begun to decline as the 2.0 era has taken hold and shaken the foundations of traditional business models. Who is to say the downturn will last forever?