I know the conventional wisdom is that the internet killed newspapers, but I think that’s too simple of an explanation. And I also think it lets newspapers off way too easy.
I don’t think the internet killed newspapers; I think newspapers killed themselves, and the internet was simply the best and most convenient alternative. In other words, the internet was the catalyst that started a process that had been queued up and ready to happen for a very long time.
What did the newspaper industry do wrong? The same thing most failing businesses are guilty of: they failed to innovate. Rather than constantly trying to outdo themselves, they waited for someone or something to come along and outdo them. Up until a few years ago, I’d been getting the Washing Post (or some other major paper) delivered to my house daily for my entire life, and I’m fairly certain that the only significant change that was ever made to that paper was the transition from black and white photographs to color. Over the course of decades, that’s pathetic.
I believe that the Washing Post, the New York Times, and many other major papers in this country could still have a very healthy and profitable print business if they simply offered a product that people wanted. Of course, the internet is still an incredibly efficient and effective means of delivering news, but I don’t think it entirely replaces the demand for thoughtful, thorough, well-researched, and journalistically sound articles that can be read anywhere and anytime, can be easily shared, that you don’t have to worry about your kids spilling juice on, and that can be comfortably read for long periods of time. Does that mean newspapers could have stopped the rise of the internet as a news medium? Of course not. But it does mean that they could probably have coexisted.
So what would a modern physical daily newspaper have to look like for me to be willing to pay for it?
- Magazine-like format. I don’t understand why it was deiced that newspapers, by definition, had to be massive and unwieldy.
- Print that doesn’t come off on your fingers. My hands shouldn’t look like I just changed the oil in my car after reading the news, and my kitchen table shouldn’t look like my driveway. Newsprint alone practically makes physical newspapers and computer keyboards and mice incompatible.
- Customizable content. Why do I get the Sports and Entertainment sections when I’m not interested in either? Getting something delivered every day that I only read a very small percentage of feels way to wasteful by modern standards.
- Sequential stories. Why is reading an entire article like going on a scavenger hunt in a traditional newspaper? Even when this was considered "normal", I hated the process of hunting down the reminder of stories.
- Internet integration. The internet is, of course, a fantastic way of delivering and accessing all kinds of media, so why not integrate print and online content through things like augmented reality and QR codes that you can use to easily access things like updates, photo galleries, comments, and video content?
At this point, it might very well be too late for newspapers to change. They have so completely failed to modernize — and they have given phones, tablets, laptops, and ebook readers so much time to embed themselves in our lives as news devices — that even if the perfect print paper were to be introduced at this point, the general public might scoff at it. But I’m pretty convinced that there was a window of time — a window that started closing a long time ago, but that slammed the rest of the way closed just in the last decade — where newspapers could have made the decision to innovate and keep themselves relevant. And now that it might be too late, I think blaming the internet is letting the industry off way too easy.
Now don’t even get me started on cable companies.
I totally agree. I think many magazines are looking at the same door closing on their hard-copy editions this decade. It would be awesome if magazines became a portal that matched speedy internet short-form content, photos, comments and communities with long-form (as you said: journalistically sound) content that people know and love. I want more hard print photojournalism that tells and story over thousands of words, not just excellent photos and twitter sized context that is limited in voice because the way we use the internet/websites is so much different from the way we use hard copies of magazines, or books, or even newspapers.
While I don’t disagree with your criticisms of newspapers and their failure to innovate, I’m not totally buying your conclusion that the internet isn’t killing them. I can only speak from my own experiences and observations as a currently unemployed ex-circulation director from the newspaper in my hometown of Flint, MI. It was never a readership problem, even in the Flint market, but an ad revenue problem. Remember the Classified section of just a few years ago? Personalized print content in any format isn’t going to fix that problem.
Good point Jerry. I’m 38 and can remember a time when newspaper classified were about the only viable option to advertise your garage sales, free kittens, cars and the like. Today you can just go to Craigslist. So, why would a person feel compelled to still use a newspaper for this?
Hm.. interesting point! Newspapers are really in the bad situation when internet competes them winning by efficiency.