Monday, November 29, 2004

Newspapers' future ...

Some interesting things have been written and produced while I was away for the holidays.

In today's pile is a Wired News article by Adam Penenberg, "Newspapers Should Really Worry." Pennberg's main thesis is that newspapers' days are numbered because the 18- to 34-year-old group that makes advertisers salivate "customize their news-gathering experience in a way a single paper publication could never do. And their hands never get dirty from newsprint." Penenberg, an NYU professor, cites Washington Post focus group results that the main reason this demographic would not take a Post subscription, even free: They don't like the idea of old newspapers piling up in their housess

Looking, as I am, at the pile of newspapers staring back at me from my days away for Thanksgiving, I understand entirely.

Yet, I remain a bit skeptical of this "death of the newspaper" vision that keeps popping up. Some thoughts:
-- A newspaper's layout still remains one of the most efficient ways to index and prioritize stories and events. The limitiation now is literally the limitation of ink on paper. But if that limitation is expanded or lifted through things like E-paper, then who knows what.
-- The history of media has been one of displacement but not destruction. Old forms continue to coexist with newer ones. Sometimes the form changes, but not the content (think vinyl albums morphed into CDs morphed into digital files). So I'm less hung up on the "paper" part of it and more on the question of what new economic models become viable for journalism.
-- Sorry, but I don't subscribe to the "all information will be free" philosophy. Free information has no value, yet in my readings and admittedly anecdotal chats with people, what I hear is not a desire for free information but for reliable, relevant, rapid information that has intrinsic value by those qualities alone. Newspapers, broadcasters and the like are really just aggregators of journalists' product. I suspect we more likely will see new forms of aggregation. Call it flubberwush, if you like. I think in many ways it will look remarkably like a newspaper.
-- Once again, broad statements are being made based on a thin slice of this nation's demographic (did we not learn anything from the past elections?). In the "hinterlands," the local newspaper is often still a highly valued part of the media mix. Is it possible for some digital entry to come online in the hundreds of small towns with daily and weekly papers? Yes, but will it be viable? I think there is less chance of that.
-- I agree with Penenberg that this new-media vision "probably won't include The Washington Post thudding on anyone's doorstep at 5 in the morning" -- except, that is, if I want it at 5 a.m. Or at 4:30 or at 3:20. It may thud into my hard drive or my online storage space or my E-paper. We've got to stop getting hung up on the medium and get real about the idea that the "paper" may soon be delivered whenever and wherever wanted. And if I like the paper's form and enough others do, too, then it will likely stay, though quite possibly digitally.

Our problem is that too often we use "print media" as the shorthand for "real news," neither of which is a particularly accurate term in the evolving mediasphere. I find more agreement with the EPIC2014 vision put together by Robin Sloan and Matt Robinson -- the New York Times becomes an elite newsletter, Google joins forces with Amazon and builds the EPIC personal information construct grid that enables anyone to construct his or her media diet. Now, you can feel how you want about the NYT as a "newsletter," but that's a print product. Could it support its current staff and efforts? Probably not, but should it? What is wrong with a bunch of smaller, more responsive and more in-depth news organizations feeding "the grid"? The main question to my mind is, can journalists make money at it to support themselves and their craft?

Sloan, in a post on Poynter's Convergence Chaser, notes this reponse to the release of the eight-minute Flash presentation:

"If 'news' as we know it ceases to exist, where will all the sources that feed on news get their information? That is, the one thing that the current print media has that no one else has (including most TV news) is REPORTERS--people that actually track down, write about, and investigate events in the world. Who will fund these these reporters? Why should they continue to exist? If the future of our media is all about compiling, editing, targeting, and commenting, where will the initial product actually come from?"
That again confuses medium with content. In many ways I hope "news" as we now know it ceases to exist because it is largely trivial, banal and irrelevant (see my next post). But I don't think the world will be short of reporters if we can figure out an economic model that continues to make journalism viable. The deafening silence in this area by the professional organizations continues to stun me.


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