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Wednesday, 01 April 2009 15:23

Pondering the future of newspapers

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Much as I dislike posing the question, here it is: can you imagine a future without newspapers? Would it be a dark day or good riddance to a biased blight upon the information landscape?

Well, if you’re reading this you’ve likely got an opinion. It means you’re a newspaper reader. It’s part of your life, something you can’t imagine living without. But it’s past time for nostalgia. That warm fuzzy about holding a newspaper in your hands as a cup of coffee tickles your nostrils won’t pay the bills for printing, for staffing, and for distribution if not enough people choose to read.

Make no mistake: newspapers are in trouble. Most have heard about the closings of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News. We know that a host of other large dailies are limping along. They’re being battered by the tidal wave that is the Internet and the unexpected and lingering depth of this recession, which is slashing advertising revenues.

So what does it all mean?

•••

If I — or anyone else — knew the future of the information and journalism industry, it would be a Bill Gates opportunity. Figuring out how to make money on gathering and packaging information in an age when most of us are completely overwhelmed with information is proving difficult.

Here’s what I do know: the traditional printed daily newspaper business model is broken. It was built on three streams of revenue: subscriptions, retail advertising, and classifieds. Well, classifieds have gone online or to all classified papers (Iwanna, in our case). Paid home delivery subscriptions have been declining for almost two decades, and it doesn’t appear much will change.

So daily papers are left to depend on two revenue streams that will continue to decline — classifieds, home delivery — and are having to rely more heavily on advertising to pay the bills. Trouble is, many businesses that used to buy those newspaper ads are looking at alternatives to the very expensive daily newspaper rates. Those alternatives include weekly newspapers like ours, television and local cable companies, radio, direct mail, and billboards.

And, of course, the Internet.

•••

What about papers like ours?

I tell many people that, unfortunately for dailies across the country, we are part of their problem. Free distribution weeklies with unique content like ours, Mountain Xpress in Asheville, the Independent in the Triangle, and the Rhinoceros Times in the Triad are chipping away at the advertising revenues the big dailies used to monopolize.

But we are also suffering during this recession. We depend solely on advertising revenue, and that has declined steeply. We are being forced to invent new products to help advertisers, take on smaller jobs, and generally morph into a broader media and publishing company that has a newspaper as its flagship.

•••

For our business, local advertising is the key. Another question, then, is how will the local businesses get their information out to readers?

Google is spending millions trying to figure that out, but many businesses tell us that print advertising in a local newspaper is still their best source for getting customers in the door. As the web becomes bogged down with information — search “smoky mountains” on Google and 2.4 million entries come up, while “smoky mountain real estate” will get you 163,000 entries — many advertisers who go solely to web are finding it a “needle in the haystack” gamble.

In the future, that haystack is just going to get astronomically larger. As blogging and social networking spiral out of control, navigating the web gets unwieldy.

So local papers still have a future, and that is what many analysts are now saying. Our news and our advertising still are unique and original, stuff that in many cases won’t be found anywhere else — at least for now.

•••

Everyone who goes online for news or turns on the televisions for news still depends primarily on newspapers. The most popular Internet news sites are papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Huffington Post and the Drudge Report pick through newspaper sites, as do Rush Limbaugh, Anderson Cooper and the writers for Jay Leno and David Letterman. They put their own spin and their own reporting into it, but almost all the stories originated with newspaper journalists.

Local television news depends on a region’s newspapers for their stories. I can’t tell you how often we’ve watched WLOS reporters hit the newsstand at our office early Wednesday morning, only to see one or more of the stories show up on the news later that day. CNN has a staff of probably a dozen reporters in Washington, while the Washington Post has several hundred.

Make no mistake, those in power — whether that is in government, business, politics or wherever — will be much more insulated from public scrutiny when all the newspapers in this country are gone. No one consistently does the type of reporting we do every single day.

•••

But what about the stories, the information we provide? How can we continue investing in those type stories as information seekers migrate toward the web?

Well, several efforts are being tried. One of the most original is for local papers to all adopt the National Public Radio format and register as nonprofit organizations. Revenues would not be taxable, and donations would be tax-deductible.

A few days ago Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland, introduced into Congress the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes. Cardin argues that since newspapers are doing so badly, the government would not lose any revenue. He says the bill is aimed at local papers, not chains or conglomerates.

Another model is to begin charging for the online news. Many papers adopted this model, then switched to free access. Now many are switching back, putting a value on their news.

Could we get, say, $45 a year for people to access all our news and advertising?

Or, could we use another business model known as micro-payments, where a program is set up to charge someone’s credit card 5 cents for every story accessed on a Web site?

•••

Or will newspapers simply go away at some point in the future?

In researching this article I came across this nugget: “Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”

This particular writer, Clay Shirky, threw up his hands, admitting he did not know who would perform that function or how society would find a way to benefit from the work now done only by newspapers. His conclusion is that society needs good journalism, not newspapers, per se.

It’s safe to say we’re living in an information revolution. To the victor goes the spoils.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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