The Death of News As We Know ItMar 8th, 2009 | By Megan Edwards | Category: featured article, Life in Las Vegas, News from ME
The newspapers are dying, and everyone old enough to venerate ink is crying.
But… come on! Can we really claim we didn’t see this coming? Isn’t it rather obvious that headline news is better distributed by a medium that can update itself more often than every 24 hours, not to mention deliver itself to you by means less time-consuming, tree-killing and altogether un-green than newsprint motored around by internal combustion engine?
Yeah, what a difference a data stream makes. And a high speed Internet connection. And words like “wiki,” but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Because OMG! There’s the wail again. It reminds me not a little of that old cautionary tale about the three sillies. (Don’t remember it? Hey! No problem! Just click here!) And, if you did just click there, you’d instantly find yourself able to read an old English fairy tale about three old English dufuses that would be crying old English tears right along with you if they were suddenly teleported to here and now.
“In-depth reporting is doomed,” they’d moan. “Whatever will become of us? The sky is falling.”
Oh, wait. That’s another story. Sorry.
“Shut up!” the baby boomers cry. “This is serious! If news is free, who’s going to pay for a smart reporter to go to Afghanistan? The sky really could fall, and we might never know!”
Um—if the sky fell, wouldn’t someone tweet about it?
“SHUT UP! You know very well what we mean! In-depth reporting, the kind of thing that really established the New York Times and the Washington Post and the [paste your favorite venerable rag here] as venerable entities we should still venerate, that’s what we’re talking about! Who’s going to pay for that sort of thing if news has to be free? And don’t say advertising! That’s like telling Sister Nirmala to become a streetwalker!”
But actually, newspapers have never had a problem accepting advertisers. Sure, they had subscribers, and of course they could count on legions of subway lemmings to plunk down a dime every day, but advertising has always been a significant feature of the mix. Call them venerable, and I won’t argue, but ad space has always been a major slice of their revenue pie.
“Well, okay,” the baby boomers say, “but you’ve got to see our point. All those texting young Facebook Twitter addicts have no idea about what it takes to do in-depth reporting. And how much it costs.”
I’m supposed to be silenced here, and—I won’t deny it—I have been up to now. As a member of the post-war population bulge myself, I’ve watched the inexorable shift from ink and paper to mouse and monitor. And I’ve participated. I’ve got a Facebook page. I blog. I tweet. I… OMFG. I even abbrevi8.
No one, not even a silly, will deny we’ve had a lot thrown at us in the last ten years. The shock has also been felt by those younger than Britney Spears. I spoke recently to a high school class. A girl commented that she felt very old because her younger brother only knew about the new Facebook.
“You have no idea,” I was tempted to tell her, but I didn’t.
Because, truth be told, none of us has any idea. We’re shrouded in the fog of war. Or—okay, there aren’t any bullets flying—let’s call it the haze of revolution. For those of us who teethed on ink, it’s difficult to envision a world without stained lips. For those who got to know Facebook last year, it’s a challenge to fathom the experiences of an even greener neophyte. But even though it’s hard to see when visibility is reduced by a swirl of virtual particulate, I’ve managed to make out some shapes I think are important.
First, the Internet has erased the time factor that once governed publication. When limited by the physics of paper and ink, we categorized information by how “evergreen” it was. The history of the Peloponnesian War went into a fat, made-to-last encyclopedia alongside biographies of dead inventors and pictures by old masters. Topics with a shorter expected longevity—and those “in-depth” stories we’re all so afraid are doomed—went into magazines, and the daily ephemera was left to fill newspapers.
But now… can you even buy a print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica? Realizing that I had no idea, I just checked. OMG! You can! For only $1,093.68 (plus another hundred or so, because “this item is not eligible for FREE Super Saver Shipping”), you can still turn your bookshelf into a status symbol!
“In an age when anyone can post their version of the facts on the Internet,” the product description reads, “’Encyclopaedia Britannica’ maintains its reputation as the most trusted source of the information and ideas people need for work, school, and the sheer joy of discovery.”
Nice try, old school, but it’s a little like saying Windsor Castle is a good place to take refuge from a Stealth attack.
Poke that analogy, and it holds up pretty well. No one can claim that Windsor Castle isn’t venerable and respected. Being able to claim it as your home is an even better status symbol than owning an Encyclopedia Britannica. Windsor Castle would also be gone in an instant if it tried to function in its former role as military citadel.
Encyclopedias and all print media are being attacked by weapons of the future, and they’re still building walls when not even a roof is going to help. What they really need to preserve is their coolness, their cachet, their reputation. As humiliating as it is for Encyclopedia Britannica to be forced to defend itself against unwashed upstarts like the Wikipedia, it has a better chance of preserving its prestige if it stops claiming it’s superior.
Yes, I know we’re talking survival here. As grand as it is, prestige doesn’t pay the bills. How can entities that have lost their traditional revenue streams stay in business? Sheesh, if I knew that, I’d get a job as a consultant and save them all. The whirlwind of change still rages, and it’ll be quite a while before the dust can settle. I’m willing to predict this,much, however. Some will die. Like old castles with no lasting use or appeal, they’ll be dismantled, dispersed, and reduced to… well, Wikipedia entries.
Because here’s the deal. No traditional business, no matter how old and venerable, can keep up with the volume of information pouring forth on the Web every second. They can act snippy and superior, but when it comes to quantity, they can’t win.
Okay, so… quality, then! That’s what we were saying to begin with! But who’s going to pay for it? The wails have started again.
Because newspapers are no longer the conduits of “all the news,” and encyclopedias are no longer the purveyors of “all the facts,” they’re going to have to reestablish themselves as trusted sources of subsets of it. I’m not psychic, but it doesn’t take clairvoyance to notice that the Web is great for delivering specialized information to niche audiences who are willing to pay for it. No, I don’t shell out a dime for ad-adorned headline news, but I pay Publisher’s Marketplace $20 a month for the privilege of reading about the latest news in the book industry. Even if I could find all the same info without paying, I wouldn’t want to spend the time. Perhaps this is the sort of approach that will save a few of our dear old last-century purveyors of news and opinion from extinction. Or maybe they need to start thinking about renting out their empty newsrooms for weddings. Encyclopedias have a bit of an advantage here—those gold-embossed volumes still do an excellent job of filling empty bookshelves with style.
Whatever these former citadels of information do, some will perish. Others will morph into entities we’ve never seen before. Still others may well manage to keep their presses rolling, their dogged Luddism financed by donations from the Society for Creative Anachronism. As disconcerting as it is to sit on the sidelines and watch, there’s no denying the evolutionary process is fascinating.
All too soon, this day will come: A child will go shopping with its mother for household sundries.
“The birdcage needs changing,” Mom will say. “Grab a package of newsprint.”
“Why is it called newsprint?” the child will ask. And Mom will laugh.
Or maybe she’ll cry.
Whatever she does, the kid will look online to find out why.