The Death of Newspapers – Again

The debate over the death of newspapers reached another crescendo this weekend. It’s not exactly clear why now, although it was probably prompted by Tim O’Reilly writing that the San Francisco Chronicle is in trouble.

Apparently, Phil Bronstein, the editor-in-chief, told staff in a recent “emergency meeting” that the news business “is broken, and no one knows how to fix it.” (“And if any other paper says they do, they’re lying.”) Reportedly, the paper plans to announce more layoffs before the year is out.

This led to a spate of other blog posts, including Dave Winer, Doc Searls, and Scott Karp. Each one has something interesting to say and offers food for thought for any news executive. Doc Searls’s list of suggestions provides a particularly good starting point.

Scott Karp argues that “What the news business and the entire media business are suffering from most right now is a failure of imagination.” While it’s pretty hard to argue against that, Scott’s imagination leads him to say that “journalism should become nonprofit, like NPR, because the reality is that the journalism we all value as citizens — the kind that brings down administrations (not that it’s done much for us lately, but that’s another story) — has never been a for-profit endeavor.” That’s an interesting idea, but not, I don’t think, a solution. First of all, NPR isn’t so much non-profit as government funded. The kind of journalism “that brings down administrations” is unlikely to be funded by the government. We frequently hear calls that NPR should get off the government dole, in large part because we live in a world that supports many niche information services, none of which are government funded. NPR’s wealthy, educated consumers will someday have to stop getting news subsidized by their poorer, less educated fellow citizens who are uninterested in the product.

Newspapers aren’t so much dying as the paper is dying. Newspapers need to understand that they produce news, not newspapers. The news product needs to be produced for delivery across multiple channels, without regard to print schedules or newshole size. It should be written as long as needed for understanding or as short as needed to hold a reader’s interest, and produced as soon as possible, while maintaining the integrity of the product. That news should then be packaged for delivery in print and on screen, with the print product a point-in-time snapshot of the constantly updated screen product. The screen product, by the way, should include video (why aren’t TV stations afraid of newspaper competition?).

News organizations can’t move into the future simply by applying the latest Web 2.0 technology to their Web sites. New products are part of the solution, sure, but a transformation is needed. A transformation in thought and in operation. Some argue that newspapers should stop worrying about delivery altogether and just report the (local) news. That’s a valid point, and one that warrants discussion, but it’s hardly a foregone conclusion. It’s also pretty clear that more focus on local reporting will also be a big part of the solution. In the end, the newspaper that realizes it exists to inform its consumers, by whatever means they choose to be informed, and using a variety of professional and amateur sources, will be on its way to becoming a news company of the future.

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