Wither the Dying Newspaper Business?

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Are you watching with trepidation or smugness as the digital Grim Reaper sets his sights on the venerable newspaper business? Are you horrified or thrilled that press barons are being disintermediated as if they were mere music moguls?

Before you answer, ask yourself two questions. Have you been listening to more music or less since the CD business imploded? And are you reading more news and commentary or less as the traditional newspaper business spirals down?

Sounding the alarm after years of denial, newspaper publishers are rallying to defend what they believe is their constitutional prerogative to herd us into passive masses so they can tell us what news to read, how to read it, and what we should think about it. Lotsa luck.

Pundits and politicians are horrified at the prospect of losing their captive channel. Defenders of diversity and the richness of multiple voices unsullied by corporatism recoil from the thought that this could happen in the news business. Watch as calls for government intervention grow.

Right on cue, congressmen are proposing government subsidies, changes in tax and copyright laws, and most recently suspension of antitrust regulations so the beleaguered industry can cartelize and fix prices. How else can politicos maintain their cozy relationships with their purported watchdogs?

King Canute would be proud.

With few exceptions, most notably the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper industry fell into the classic trap of underestimating the power of the internet. Not only can the internet do a better and more timely job distributing news but it demolished barriers to entry for news gatherers, editors, and commentators. Who can feign surprise? Go check out the price difference between a web server and a block-long printing press feeding a fleet of trucks.

Publishers failed to prepare and most will fail to adapt. Shielded behind bulletproof classes of supervoting stock, newspaper family oligarchs ran their web sites like vanity press, preferring to marinate in the dwindling prestige of the antique paper product they inherited. Meanwhile the economic lifeblood of newspapers, namely classified ads, fled to the web. In that fertile soil classifieds harnessed the power of interactivity unencumbered by the economics of physical distribution.

So what now? The world of the written word will always need news gatherers and news editors. And the market for commentators has never been better. But there is no reason to believe that news practitioners have to be employees of vertically integrated corporations housed in antiquated factories run by industrial-age guilds squirting black pigment onto bleached tree slices. Trying to keep that broken business model alive is a fool’s game. Speaking of which, how much fun was it to watch the New York Times face down the guaranteed-job-for-life crew at the Boston Globe as management struggled mightily to free itself from the curse of organized labor that it wishes on every other industry?

But what about professional journalists, you ask? Who will pay their keep if not vertically integrated newspapers? Don’t they deserve special consideration?

Check any public opinion poll and you will see that journalists have largely worn out their welcome. Long gone are the days when reporters were trained to stick to the who, what, when, and where of a story. Rare is the reporter that even bothers to get the facts straight, absorbed as they are promoting their point of view. Anyone who has actually been interviewed by a reporter only to watch their words get twisted to fit a pre-conceived agenda knows that “journalistic integrity” is a cultural myth. And when was the last time you found an editor that restricts editorials to the editorial page?

Breaking the present system and allowing it to rebuild itself as an interconnected ecosystem of independent full and part-time news agents, specialty aggregators, and freelance commentators is the best thing that can happen to the news business. Writers, editors, and commentators such as myself will always be over-produced commodities. There will be plenty of us to feed the machine even as we watch our compensation drop from $1.50 per word to zero, as mine has.

Like much of my generation, I still read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times in their paper editions, though who knows how much longer. The new WSJ reader on my BlackBerry is so superb that I no longer get frantic if the paper copy doesn’t arrive on time. I’ve not yet bought a Kindle but it’s just a matter of time before Moore’s Law makes portable e-Readers attractive to the masses. Reading on a small screen is certainly different than perusing a broadsheet, and content producers and aggregators will have to adapt. Articles have to be read by active selection rather than serendipity. This will surely have consequences. For example, would you go out of your way to read Maureen Dowd's vapid twitterings if your eyes weren't already in the neighborhood? Ditto display ads.

Life will go on and business models will adapt. Old players will disappear under the waves and new ones will arise from unlikely places. Yet news will continue to be gathered and distributed long after paper newspapers pass the way of the town crier.

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