Friday, January 23, 2009

The Impending Death of Newspapers

Lately I have been obsessed with the impending death of newspapers. While I don't sit down every day and read a newspaper, I just can't imagine life without the New York Times (here is a scenario by which the NYT goes bankrupt by May, from the Atlantic Monthly). And I have some nostalgia for newsprint, but really, not that much. So, here are a few thoughts, in random order, annotated with some of the sources that have led to these thoughts:

What is dying? The traditional print edition of the traditional hometown newspaper is dying. I think making it this specific is important, because news itself is not dying, just the version of it that many of us had become comfortable with. Interesting thing about it, is that newspapers knew this a long long time ago:
"The industry has understood from the advent of AM radio in the 1920s that technology would eventually be its undoing and has always behaved accordingly."
From Jack Schafer's great piece at Slate "How newspapers tried to invent the web and failed"
Here is also a cute little piece on the evening news about the newspaper delivered over the phone to a personal computer (my favorite bit is how the guy using this service is given a caption of "personal computer owner")

So, newspapers have known for along time that they were going to be done in by technology, and mostly their efforts have been to stall the technology, not to adopt it and change their business model. One interesting point I hadn't totally realized until I read this piece in Philadelphia Magazine was that while the editorial content obviously has more competitors now that everyone has a blog, the reason for the financial failure in newspapers is almost purely from the lack of advertising (although I suppose that does eventually come back to the fact that the eyes are going elsewhere, so advertisers follow the eyes). So, really, Craigslist is mostly to blame for taking down all these papers. Funny that craigslist founder Craig Newmark has made zero dollars on all his fame. But anyways...

Given that something is dying, what is going to stay? Will the freedom of the press become just as irrelevant as our freedom to choose our electric company? Will there be no more press? I think what will mostly happen is that newspapers will stop entirely doing those things that they have been not doing well for years now. (This point is made in more depth by Clay Shirky on newspapers and online media) Personal ads, reporting on things that others do much better, such as sports scores, etc. What I hope, and I think this is reasonable, is that they continue to do well those things that they have done well, which is to provide a good forum for the columnists and thinkers we have come to know and love (any look at the most emailed at NYTimes usually includes Krugman, Brooks, etc), deep investigative reporting, and organizing the mountains of information available these days to anyone with an internet connection.
Why newspapers should be endowed nonprofits, from the NYT

Regarding the first: Now that you can get an email digest of someone' s columns, or have an RSS feed in your personal page (iGoogle, or yahoo, or whatever), the brand of the person is getting to be bigger than the paper. Of course this did happen in the past, but not as much as now. There is no more paging to your favorite columnist, you just go straight to that, skipping the masthead. As times go on, I wonder if people will more and more simply subscribe to their favorites, and not bother with the traditional front page at all, until a big event happens. I find myself doing this now. I don't think this is a terrible thing, that the name recognition of the writer means more than the paper. Check out Christopher Hitchens on being waterboarded (I forget where from). Or Roger Ebert, a brand unto himself, and worth it. Great film critic, but also cultural commentator. The value of the written word persists. The Huffington Post recognizes this, and gives the byline a much much bigger font size than traditional media.

Regarding the second and third: Deep investigative reporting is not what it used to be. Cultivating sources and getting to stories that are neglected and not told elsewhere will still happen, but not with nearly the kind of frequency as it has in the past decades. What will increase, I believe, will be more opportunities to use a sophistication with data and multiple sources of information and consolidate it into one easy place. The NYTimes is finally discovering that there are more ways to add value than the text narrative, and they are expanding their definition of journalism to meet their readers.
Some good examples of this:
NYTimes introduces Congress API and an interactive visualization of all of the parking tickets for one year in NY. Also recently announced: The Best Sellers API, where programmers can take the data (and there is a lot of great data) of the NYTimes best seller list, and put it to good use, like a book suggestion program. There was a profile in New York Magazine of the new New York Times journalist/programmers. The NYT is now having a big fun "hack day" for programmers to come up with cool ways to use all the data that they have (they adopt an Open Source attitude, towards this at least).
The Boston Globe has filled a photography niche with its The Big Picture, a really nice website of news photos (check out their Earth from Above)

Part of the problem that newspapers have is that the public's trust in them has both eroded and splintered. Maybe people didn't entirely trust Hearst newspapers, but they were pretty much the only game in town, so they got all the trust that people could give to a media institution. Now you can instantly cross check the NYT, Wash Post, Daily Kos, HuffPo and Daily Kos. There are so many little niches that the one behemoth that provides everything just doesn't work anymore. This trend is accentuated by the ease of aggregation of content from many sources. It is actually very easy to pull together your own "newspaper" of sorts, with sports done by ESPN, politics by 538, everything else by Jon Stewart and Colbert . Of course what happens is a Big Sort, but for media, such that I could go a week without reading anything I disagreed with, which I don't think is actually a very good thing, convenient in the short run, but I think a long term bad. The other thing in addition to aggregation is the value of a trustworthy filter for the mountains of news and information that come from everywhere.
Some filters that I have found useful are: - quick links to interesting stuff, videos, news stories, etc. Has a nerdy flavor (some video games and comics and computer stuff) - Also very nerdy, but every third or fourth link is something fascinating
that you wouldn't have found anywhere else
Give me something to read, an aggregator that gives you a few things to read, based on what other people (who use a service called instapaper) have bookmarked. This is really interesting because it basically spits out at you an interesting or noteworthy piece from anywhere, but mostly The Atlantic, The New Republic, WSJ, NYT, WaPo, NYRB, New Yorker, the Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, which no one has the time to read all of them. The toread tag on delicious works similarly
There is also: the most emailed news, a site that aggregates the most emailed news stories across newspapers

I should just stop, and of course say that just about nothing from this post is original, but that I thought many of my readers (all 5 of you) might find some of this interesting given that some of it has come from sources that might not pass your radar screen. It is, after all, Cedar's digest.