Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Death in the Family

There's a lot being written this week about the impending death of the printed newspaper. While some of the gloomiest predictions might be premature, the patient is gravely ill.

Daily newspapers, once vital strands in the fabric of American family and community life, have been unraveling, a decline accelerated in the past year by a withered economy.

I'm a journalism graduate and spent a brief time as a reporter for an Eastern Pennsylvania daily before going into advertising and public relations. My late father was a typesetter (the old "hot metal" type) for several papers, including the Stars and Stripes in World War II. So I confess a sentimental attachment to the institution of a daily newspaper. But the Norman Rockwell-styled image of someone sitting down with a newspaper is as faded and yellowed as old newsprint.

What's brought daily newspapers to the brink of oblivion? Some may point to short-sighted management, inflexible labor or other escalating costs of production and distribution (sounds like the auto industry). The biggest factor? The world just changed, and that's been going on a long time.

Even before the rise of the Internet, newspapers were declining. People no longer had the time to spend with their daily companion. First radio (which began its news operations by reading stories from the printed paper) and then television compressed news into ever-shrinking segments. News became just a few morsels the busy person could nibble on while buzzing from task to task. Whatever evening dailies were left by the 1970s quickly became morning papers or folded altogether -- reflecting long commutes, the two-parent workforce and other trends.

Then came the digital revolution.

With even more to do and less time to get it done, people turned to the Internet for news. Historically, a newspaper replenished its circulation base as younger persons entered the marketplace. No longer. In my Advertising Copywriting class, I have 18 bright folks who represent tomorrow's leaders. Of the group, I think there are two who read a printed newspaper with any trace of regularity. I'm surprised it's that many.

Newspapers tried to adapt their printed product to the digital age, with less-than-stunning success. Many of them looked uninviting at best. As communications strategist David Henderson observed earlier this year, the Washington Post online "has not changed much in appearance in the last five or six years," further noting that the Post online "cannot figure out what it wants to be." The New York Times experimented with a concept called "Times Select," where they made their news available free but charged for certain content, such as columnists. They eventually scrapped Times Select.

Advertising revenue, the printed paper's lifeblood, has been hard to capture online. Even when the paper rounds up a set of regular advertisers for on-page advertising, people using the Firefox browser teamed with the AdBlock add-on don't see a single ad. The Wall Street Journal operates online via subscription, but there have been discussions on opening up more of its content since its acquisition by News Corp. People expect things on the Internet to be free and a successful online business model for newspapers -- and many other traditional businesses -- has been elusive.

Even an old newspaper fan like me has largely left the ranks of daily print newspaper readers. A quick flip-through is all I can spare for the local paper, with a pause at the obituaries -- a sure sign of aging. Then it's online whenever I have a few moments; although I may do it in little bursts, I may consume more news than before. With the Internet, I can scan the Telegraph from London, sample Haaretz from Jerusalem, listen to the BBC and even catch a story on Al-Jazeera.

So where do printed newspapers go from here? In a video-driven, 24/7 news cycle world, even the most incisive reporting in a printed paper is old by the time it reaches its readers. What's in the paper that you can't find online? Forget national or international news. Pictures? Too static; watch the video online. Help Wanted and other classifieds? Nope. Event calendars? Plenty of Internet sites for those, even at the local level. You can even look up obituaries online. The one exception might be some types of local news -- if you haven't already caught it on your mobile phone or that 20th century relic, television.

It may be time for print newspapers to go; but there's always sorrow for a death in the family.

1 comment:

Deb said...

You are so right on the mark with this.

I sometimes wonder why I have invested 2 years in writing a column for a print newspaper because I had no grand expectations of getting on staff. Actually the reason contract columns were available at all was to pick up the slack of shrinking staff; and it has shrunk even more to where the publisher and editor are the same person.

There was a day when that would have been considered a huge conflict of interest (I think we can guess what LaBarbera and Thomas would have said about that), but really the argument of which is more important the advertising or the content is moot because the advertisers have already won.

And yep, I love my Firefox and I run my blocker at full-tilt.