Print may be dying, but the news is not

by Mathew on March 25, 2007 · 17 comments

Rumours of trouble at the San Francisco Chronicle (which came from Tim O’Reilly originally) have sparked much commentary, some of it insightful — and here I have to mention Dave Winer, whom I have had differences with in the past but who makes some worthwhile points about what papers need to do — and some of it, well, not so much. Like my friend Mark Evans, who has a long post here, I think Robert Scoble falls into the not-so-much category with his post about how newspapers are dead.

newspapers2.jpgAre newspapers in trouble? Sure they are. And I would definitely agree that there hasn’t been enough thinking about (or investment in) the future from many newspapers, although I would argue that the Globe and Mail has been doing more than some of its competitors. But I don’t think it advances the debate any to throw around apocalyptic pronouncements — and I say that knowing full well that many people will discount what I’m saying because I work for a provider of dead-tree media.

Obviously, more people like Robert Scoble are getting their news from the Web — as am I, and other geek types. As Mark points out, however, plenty of people are also getting their news from free papers, which have been growing at an incredible rate. That definitely means trouble for the newspaper industry’s current business models, but not necessarily for print itself. But there are still hundreds of millions of people subscribing to newspapers, and likely will be for decades, even if that number decreases.

To me, part of the problem is that everyone focuses on the “paper” part of the word “newspaper,” which to me is the least important part of the term. There’s no question that the paper part of the business is decreasing in importance, and news may no longer be primarily distributed on smashed-up trees. Does that change the nature of the business? Definitely.

But it doesn’t mean newspaper companies have to die — it just means they need to evolve.

Further reading:

Doc Searls has some ideas about how to do that. Mike Arrington has some thoughts about journalism at CrunchNotes. Karoli at Odd Time Signatures has a few thoughts about the evolution as well (love the new blog design, Karoli). My friend Scott Karp has a long and typically insightful look at the paper business here. And Steven Hodson at Winextra notes that the equation is a little different for small-town or local papers, which I think is an important point.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I agree Mathew, it’s that evolution that will be painful in some ways for traditional media companies and part of the “creative destruction” (or whatever) that the proliferation of technology and new media outlets (free, online, etc.) are causing. It’s the same for the music industry and large media companies (see: Viacom v. Google/youtube for a recent example).

    All of the rules are changing, new players are coming onto the scene, and newspaper companies and all old line media corporations need to evolve quickly to stay relevant. So it’s interesting to me that companies such as the NYT company and Conde Nast are making acquisitions and in some ways changing the way they present information to online audiences. Netscape is another innovator, I’ll wager, in adopting a digg-like model.

  • http://www.robhyndman.com/2007/03/25/newspapers-im-not-dead-yet-or-dead-men-walking/ Rob Hyndman

    I wonder, Mathew – is it really even about just the ‘news’? Newspapers do so much more, after all, don’t they? Most of the sections of the Saturday Globe probably don’t contain “news” any more, after all? And that’s made it a very pleasurable read for a long time.

    I frankly think far too much of the talk is about very narrow conceptions about newspapers can become when they evolve. Most of the suggestions I read really only speak to the next 12-36 months of evolution. All of that, I think, is trivial compared to the longer view question of what newspapers will be when all media is distributed digitally and can be text, video, audio, community, and so on, in whatever measure makes sense to the reader / viewer / listener / community. That’s what I fastened on today.

    Historically, media has been categorized according to format. But that is going to be decreasingly relevant as time passes. It will all be infomedia, consumed in whatever format makes sense for the story being told and the audience’s taste. Call it the great covergence. Or call it Alfred, whatever. But it’s what’s really next, IMO.

    So, how will newspapers fare going into that process?

    Put another way, all of this talk about whether there ought to be comments, if so should they be moderated, and so on – the stuff that Doc and Dave Winer are focusing on – seems like ground cover compared to the broader questions.

    Last point – how does CanCon fare in the great convergence? A fascinating question that *no one*, as far as I can tell, is talking about, at least in the outside-of-US English blogosphere.

    :)

  • Mathew

    I think you are quite right, Rob. It is about more than just news — or rather, the definition of what is news is becoming broader, and the format is ceasing to matter as much, as you point out.

    And it’s worth wondering what newspapers can or will become in that kind of world — but I think there is still a place for a smart aggregator or filter or some such thing.

    Whether any of the existing media entities fill that role remains to be seen, I guess :-)

  • http://www.robhyndman.com/2007/03/25/newspapers-im-not-dead-yet-or-dead-men-walking/ Rob Hyndman

    It will be – ahem – interesting to see what develops in ‘converged’ media in the months ahead. :)

  • SFGary

    When I ask the question: who will gather, edit and distribute the news most bloggers are puzzled. I get the feeling a lot of them have not given it a lot of thought and they play “follow the leader.” Quoting other bloggers does not answer the question, its just passing the buck.

    More in depth questions like: is the reporting dependable, is he/she a journalist, who is paying them is beyond a lot of people.

    I am no big fan of my local newsrag, the SF Chron, which is more of a small town paper than this city deserves but I would much rather get the news from them and other established news organizations than a twitter enabled inexperienced newsblogger.

    Its well acknowledged that news papers have to evolve, but declaring them dead is a bit premature.

  • http://www.makequick.com Nick

    News will never die, but use of paper only goes so far. Digital is the new realm, newspapers will fall eventually.

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  • dbiesiada

    Paper or not, consequence of Web 2.0 freedom (in privileges not price) is that we're filled with garbage. This is unstoppable and I don't want to stop it myself, yet what I see and I agree with you, modern media suffer because their old business models were challenged. I do not have good answer for that question if I want to pay or not, for some sources I certainly would because I miss good quality journalism with a thought. More and more quantity and speed matters, which is not always good.

  • dbiesiada

    Paper or not, consequence of Web 2.0 freedom (in privileges not price) is that we're filled with garbage. This is unstoppable and I don't want to stop it myself, yet what I see and I agree with you, modern media suffer because their old business models were challenged. I do not have good answer for that question if I want to pay or not, for some sources I certainly would because I miss good quality journalism with a thought. More and more quantity and speed matters, which is not always good.

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