The Death of News As We Know It

Mar 8th, 2009 | By | Category: featured article, Life in Las Vegas, News from ME
The Presses Stopped

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!”

Er… who?

Sister Nirmala.

Oh. Thanks.

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.

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14 comments
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  1. As a content-creator, web-publisher and writer, I can see this being extended to web magazines unless their respective management teams are constantly tweaking and looking for the new “sweet spot” for reader’s tastes and interests. I would characterize it as one-part daunting, one-part exciting and one-part “just-git-it-done”.

    Mark

  2. Hmm, so maybe I should send back that Funk&Wagnalls Encyclopedia Yearbook?

  3. My rule of thumb is, if it’s pretty and has the potential for impressing dates, keep it. Prestigious books are the home decor version of a college tie. Why pay shipping to get rid of something so cool? By the way, do you have the OED? I’ve always had a soft spot for men with big dictionaries.

  4. Hi Megan,
    Fascinating piece – particularly the link to the Three Sillies (who were new to me).

    I do think it’s going to be an “as well as” rather than an “instead of”. While I certainly do rely on http://www.cnn.com and http://www.news.bbc.co.uk for by-the-minute updates, I still buy a paper every day and three on Sunday. Why?

    One, because it simply a more friendly medium (particularly for those of us who spend their entire working day in front of a screen); I simply couldn’t imagine sitting back tonight to browse the internet but that’s what I’ll be doing with the Sundays I didn’t get through yesterday.

    And two, because it delivers information we wouldn’t otherwise come across. I can confidently say that I don’t believe I’ve ever Googled the words basejumping, oligarch, rhubarb tart, or Borghese Gallery, but I read about all four yesterday and learned something new about each.

    By the way, I’ve just looked over at the shelf here in my office and am afraid to have to tell you that, although printed by the University Press, Oxford, my reference book is the very modest indeed Little Oxford Dictionary (4th Edition, 1969).

  5. Good article. Charging for targeted delivery of something that could be found for free is a viable market. The old adage that “Time is money” still holds true. Maybe more so today. Add some analysis on top of it and you sweeten the deal.

  6. With ink in my veins most of my life, I found it sad to see the beginning of the end for many newspapers. Many of those on the road to failure so quickly embraced the Internet, only to discover it would be the kiss of death, failing to understand how to integrate the Internet and utilize it to enhance their existing product.. The greatest failing may have been failure to hit the “refresh” button for their newspapers.

    This article was a great read, lots of fun and right on target. And how true it is that all media today, even Web publications, must continue tweaking their products.

    Raise your hand if you have a hard-covered dictionary or thesaurus on your bookshelves that is less than 15 years old.

  7. @Peter, Actually, these days I am far more likely to learn and/or or see “new” words (to me) via news alerts sent via Twitter. Breaking news pretty much arrives at my desktop via Twitter and other social media — I look at the newspapers for the editorials (but less and less every day) and the… comics.

    Like Anne, I’ve been involved in some element of the news print business since my stint as editor of my high school newspaper (a few too many decades ago) and I tend to resist the rising tide of change as much as anyone, but the newspapers that I’ve held dear over the years are, for the most part, only a whisper of what they once were.

    Magazines on the other hand still are a vital part of my weekly read — but even those tend to be tightly focused on my professional interests — “American Road”, “Overland Journal” and “Via”. I still get the “Atlantic Monthly” and some other slightly less intellectual rags, “Jazz Notes”, “Newsweek” and the like but they capture my attention less and less.

    This is an interesting time to be in the business of publishing original articles and other forms of content. And “the ride” continues.

    Mark

  8. Peter — I love newspapers, too, and you just don’t “happen upon” things the same way on the Web as you do turning pages. On the other hand, I just Googled “rhubarb tart” and learned that Monty Python rhymed it with “Descartes.” Nice one! As for dictionaries, I’ve always been told that it’s not their size that matters, but whether you use them. On the other hand, a big one does make a better doorstop.

    John — Publishers Marketplace has done an excellent job of establishing itself as the clearing house for book publishing industry news, sales statistics, and analysis. Quite brilliant and well worth the money for those who want and need what they deliver.

    Anne — You are so right about how all types of media have to keep tweaking their products — we really are in a vortex of change right now. By the way, I actually have a 2005 Webster’s College Dictionary! Can’t say I use it every day, but it does come in handy for Scrabble. Not as good a doorstop as the OED, though.

  9. My dictionary (American Heritage) is less than 15 years old, as is my hideously expensive atlas.

    Most of my adult life, I have started my day with the newspaper. It’s easy to skim and won’t spit sparks if I spill my tea on it. At the moment, I live the the Washington, DC, area and I think the Washington Post (along with the New York Times) will last longer than most. I know that the San Francisco Chronicle of my childhood is threatened.

    I’m with Peter on the friendliness and utility of newpapers and I shall miss them.

  10. OMG! Atlases! I love paper maps. And wall maps — may they live forever.

    On the sad story of newspapers, the Los Angeles Times is a shadow of its former self. When I go to LA, I almost can’t bear to look. It’s like visiting a friend with a terrible wasting disease.

    I read the paper in the bathtub this morning. Now there’s something I’ll miss.

  11. Megan, I have only the concise Oxford; it goes back only to the 18th c. + Shakespeare.
    But I do have an AHD, RHD, a Collins, and an old F&W. Hope there’ll be a Webster’s 4th someday, but I’m told there’s no money in unabridged dicts.
    Do have 4 world atlases though.

  12. I seriously doubt that all newspapers will go away. However, I don’t imagine that those that don’t go away will be the same as what people have been reading for the past half century. The staffs of reporters, etcetera, that people worry about will be employed feeding information to online news distributors instead of paper ones. And the papers may well look more like the “community” papers we currently see around various metropolitan areas. Less hard news, more things that are interesting only to the people living in the area.

    Or, maybe we’ll all get stupid and watch nothing but the Fox News Channel 24/7. I’m thinking that it would be painless, he wrote most cynically.

    Steve

  13. Steve, I like the new avatar — you look “dangerously” out-there! How’d you like to be a dean of a journalism school about now? I’m sure there is alot of head-scratching about WTF are we supposed to be teaching now? Most of the organizational hierarchies that those schools have been preparing graduates for is essentially gone now. Very interesting times for all of us in the content creation/writing business these days.

    Mark

  14. Steve, I think your predictions are right on. Well, except the Fox News one, I hope!

    Mark, here’s an article I found really interesting: “J-Schools play Catchup”