Sunday, December 7, 2008
The Reincarnation of the Newspaper
A quick thought on the crisis facing the American newspaper industry, which has often been described as a battle between online vs. print, with online winning. The problem with that description, though, is that American newspapers are really pretty cutting edge in terms of their approach to online news. Like the major broadcast companies' transition from radio to television in the mid-20th century, newspapers are uniquely positioned to benefit from readers' growing preference for online news. There are also online niches where they enjoy significant advantages over their broadcast competition. As an example, they have far deeper reporting resources than most television news outlets, with lower production overhead. So when it comes to video and mulitmedia reporting for their online editions, there's an enormous upside potential.
The crisis would be more accurately described as a battle between online revenue vs. print revenue. The problem for American newspapers isn't that they're losing readers to online editions, since they are the online editions, by and large, their print readers are abandoning them for. The problem is that no one has yet figured out how to monetize online readership.
Or online anything, for that matter. Unlike television, which provided even more lucrative revenue streams for the radio broadcasters who made the transition, the internet's reach and ease of reproduction -- in other words its very strengths -- have undermined traditional intellectual copyright revenue streams in general. The recording industry faces the same challenge, and if it survives, it will be due to alternative revenue sources, such as the cost of licensing included in pre-loaded mp3 readers, internet service provider subscriptions, and brand affiliations.
Some papers have already begun experimenting with "sponsored" editorial content. But the predictable backlash confirms that a newspaper's public interest function limits the kinds of revenue arrangements it can innovate, if it wants to maintain its journalistic credibility. Licensing fees from e-readers like the Kindle, and eventually e-paper, might make up some of the print revenue that's gradually being lost. But not all of it.
Newspapers could change their business model, whether by adapting to niche print markets (trains, planes and automo... make that buses) or going non-profit, but in that case they'll be unlikely to maintain the kind of reporting resources that are their main strength. Most of the major national dailies, I'm guessing, will survive either through philanthropic foundation money, or else strategic partnerships with universities or other cash-rich public interest institutions.
That leaves the mid-level and local dailies, which is a significant loss if they do eventually go under. These are the papers that are often the first reference when a local story takes on national signficance. Think of the Anchorage Daily News' coverage of the Sarah Palin abuse of power inquiry.
But ultimately, there's a circular logic whereby the death of print means the rebirth of print. Because anyone who thinks there will be online editions once the print newsrooms no longer exist is in for a rude shock when they check their RSS reader or the Google news homepage the day the last print edition folds. Either online becomes sustainable, which means print runs will probably survive, too, even if they are limited. Or else we're heading into the newspaper equivalent of the Cambrian mass extinction, whereby the newspaper landscape is wiped clean, only for newspapers to reemerge in some new evolutionary form. But if that happens, it's hard to see how that new form won't include some sort of print format.