Newspapers: Evolution or catastrophe?

by Mathew on January 7, 2009 · 16 comments

There have been — and will no doubt continue to be — plenty of blog posts, magazine articles and even (irony of ironies) the occasional newspaper story written about the death of the newspaper. It’s become almost a cottage industry, poring over the imminent failure of giants such as the New York Times, the Tribune Co. empire and even the Wall Street Journal. Some pieces (mostly by journalists) bemoan the changes the media industry is going through, like one I wrote about recently, in which a columnist wrote about how bloggers were killing the industry. Others (thankfully) are a little more optimistic about the evolution of online media.

One of the best pieces I’ve come across in a while comes from Michael Hirschorn, a former editor for New York magazine, Spin and Esquire and a former executive with VH1 who writes regularly for Atlantic Monthly. His piece, entitled End Times, starts out with a bang:

“Virtually all the predictions about the death of old media have assumed a comfortingly long time frame for the end of print … But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business — like, this May?”

The odds of this, as Hirschorn notes, are fairly remote — the company has already mortgaged its headquarters and has other ways of raising money to pay its creditors, including selling the Boston Globe and About.com — but it is far from impossible, given the NYT Co.’s debt level. Hirschorn goes on to talk about how the Times has an incredibly popular website, but (like most newspapers, including the one I work for) the advertising revenue from the site produces a fraction of what the printed product generates.

In order to survive online, most papers would have to slash about 75 to 80 per cent of their costs (i.e., their staff). Would this be the end of journalism as we know it? Not necessarily, says Hirschorn:

“What would a post-print Times look like? Forced to make a Web-based strategy profitable, a reconstructed Web site could start mixing original reportage with Times-endorsed reporting from other outlets with straight-up aggregation … In an optimistic scenario, the remaining reporters — now reporters-cum-bloggers, in many cases — could use their considerable savvy to mix their own reporting with that of others, giving us a more integrative, real-time view of the world unencumbered by the inefficiencies of the traditional journalistic form.”

As the author notes, this would be a bit like the model used by online-only outlets like The Huffington Post — but with the addition of all those Times reporters:

“A healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting. This combination has allowed the HuffPo to digest the news that matters most to its readers at minimal cost, while it focuses resources in the highest-impact areas. What the HuffPo does not have, at least not yet, is a roster of contributors who can set agendas, conduct in-depth investigations, or break high-level news. But the post-print Times still would.”

You can quarrel with Hirschorn’s vision of what a post-print Times might look like, but I don’t think it would necessarily mean the end of journalism as we know it. It might even wind up producing better journalism.

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  • http://brianfrank.ca/2008/12/from-news-to-nascence/ Brian Frank

    Two things that stood out most for me in the Atlantic article were a) Hirschorn's suggestion that we underestimate the possibility of an instantaneous crash (as we saw happen to investment banks… oh those black swans) and b) newspapers have “trained” readers to undervalue journalists and “undermined the perceived value of serious newspaper journalism,” so the papers' profit centres (and therefore business models) consist of content people enjoy a lot when it's there but “isn’t the sort of thing you miss when it’s gone.”

    Now that I'm writing it out like this I wonder how much of an analogy there is between the news industry and the banking industry — both shifting too far away from their core businesses and getting too bloated with stuff derived and repackaged.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a good point, Brian. Those two parts hit me as well. Thanks for the comment.

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  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I couldn’t agree more — the focus on the “paper” part of the equation
    is no different than the railways’ focus on the “rail” part of their
    business. There are other similarities as well — high fixed costs for
    infrastructure, for example :-)

  • http://www.freedompictures.ca simon

    Back in 1960 when marketing was the new big thing, Theodore Levitt wrote his classic piece in HBR: “Marketing Myopia”. In it he used the example of the decline of the railroads and their failure to realise they are in the transportation business not the business of railroads.

    The fixation on the “death of newspapers” represents a similarly myopic view. As long as newspaper organizations focus on defending their newspapers rather than defining their real business, they are doomed to be replaced by those that do.

    Not suggesting it's easy or simple. Nonetheless, it's the critical issue to those companies' survival.

  • http://blog.zooloo.com ZooLoo

    As a former journalist, I watched coworker after coworker get laid off and magazine after magazine shut down. We finally had to really focus on our online sites, SEO, keyword discovery and our content aggregation, which made our online numbers skyrocket. Our reader were receiving up-to-date info almost immediately after it broke, making them better informed and making us industry leaders. I definitely agree with you that the forcing of industrial media to make the move to online is absolutely producing better journalism. Excellent post.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Rebecca.

  • http://carrieanddanielle.com Daniel Gibbons

    What strikes me about all of these discussions is that they are, understandably I suppose, so US-centric. UK newspapers, as I understand it, are far less precarious than their US counterparts, because they are and always have been relatively less dependent on advertising. The most recent circulation figures I could find show a modest decline for most UK papers from late '07 to late '08 but nothing cataclysmic.

    I'm speculating here, but perhaps it's because, love them or hate them, the UK papers have always been a bit more blog-like in their approach. That is, they are opinionated, outspoken, take a moral and ideological stance, and are unafraid of upsetting, for example, the Prime Minister's handlers, in the same way that US papers generally act in a subservient way to the White House, etc.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's an interesting point, Daniel — I don't know enough about UK papers to know whether that's true, but it's an interesting theory.

  • http://www.hypercrit.net Michael Becker

    The thing that struck me about the article was Hirshorn noting the flattening of news. He points out that the story that came to him via Google Alerts could have come from any news source. Globalization and the incessant reposting of news has removed all of the voice from most of the traditional news articles we read. It's sad.

    I read his ending optimistically. He's saying that we might just get something better than we have now if we don't cling to the dead-tree distribution system that we have now. We might just get deeper insight from communities of journalists working together on topics they're passionate about and hitting those topics from every conceivable angle. Combined with a healthy dose of link journalism, this could do much for readers — provided they have the time to look at it; there would be a lot out there to read (there already is).

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree completely, Michael.

  • http://wweapons.blogspot.com jay

    I think the extinction of the newspaper is also becoming an enviromental issue due to the large amount of paper wasted every day

  • http://www.intelli-collect.com Andy Lax

    Hi Mathew,

    Thanks for highlighting an extremely interesting an important development. While many newspapers and
    magazines will fold, I still don't believe that the written word will disappear. Printed media will have to adapt
    to changes (e.g., offering more creative, useful content, building a stronger base of local advertisers, offering
    concomitant online sites to access information, etc.).

    I, like many others, still prefer reading from something physical and tangible that I can hold in my hand, than
    accessing info via a screen. Millions of people use public transportation, too, and must rely on a more “mobile
    source” of information — the antiquated newspaper and/or magazine.

  • http://www.intelli-collect.com Andy Lax

    Hi Mathew,

    Thanks for highlighting an extremely interesting an important development. While many newspapers and
    magazines will fold, I still don't believe that the written word will disappear. Printed media will have to adapt
    to changes (e.g., offering more creative, useful content, building a stronger base of local advertisers, offering
    concomitant online sites to access information, etc.).

    I, like many others, still prefer reading from something physical and tangible that I can hold in my hand, than
    accessing info via a screen. Millions of people use public transportation, too, and must rely on a more “mobile
    source” of information — the antiquated newspaper and/or magazine.

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