Bad news for the newspaper business (but don’t look so worried)

Newspapers are in serious trouble.  This shouldn’t be a shocker to anyone, and the bad news just keeps coming.  On Monday, March 16, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced that it was done publishing paper editions, shifting to internet-only content delievery.  The New York Times covered the story here.  In addition to shutting down the printing presses, the P-I news staff is being cut from 165 to 20.  The site will consist of “mostly commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting.”

On March 23, the NYTimes reported that four newspapers in Michigan were ending daily publications.  In Flint, Saginaw and Bay City, papers would be printed only three days per week.  In Ann Arbor, publication will be cut to two days per week.  The Ann Arbor News is laying off its entire staff of 272, and will re-form as two companies.  One will release printed papers, while will provide web-based news.  The site will provide “some original reporting, and an emphasis on reader input and community forums.”  No word on how many people will be re-hired, but it will certainly be less than 272. (See the story here for more information.)  The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press are cutting home delivery to three days per week.  Newspapers in Philadelphia and Minneapolis have declared bankruptcy.

If you’re a newspaper junkie, this sounds pretty crappy, but one person’s crappy is another’s revolution.  Clay Shirky has written a fantastic essay on the problems facing the newspaper business.  He writes that the digital revolution parallels another revolution, brought on by the printing press.

The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?


That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

That’s the real kicker.  The newspaper business is broken, and we don’t have a replacement for it.  Digital media has challenged every form of print, recorded or broadcast media, but newspapers are really getting the worst of it.  At the very least, they’re getting it first.  File-sharing has put serious pressure on the movie and music industries.  Stop-gap measures like prosecution and digital sales aren’t really picking up the slack, but people still want recorded albums.  They still want to watch movies.  The physical medium and distribution method have changed, but the idea of an album or a movie has been (fairly) resilient.  The same is true of books.  The Amazon Kindle is making in-roads, but digital books haven’t really caught on.  For most people, even the best e-readers don’t match the appeal of a “real” book.

Newspapers are a different story.  Shirky says that the newspaper industry was fairly forward-thinking.  They recognized the potential of computers and networks and attempted to plan for the future.  The extent of the revolution wasn’t clear, however.

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.

This isn’t panning out.  Advertisements and circulation aren’t generating enough revenue to cover the costs of maintaining a newsroom and printing papers.  And when a staff is cut from 165 to 20, it’s pretty clear that the end product won’t be the same.  “Mostly commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting” is not a newspaper.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Shirky argues that journalism has become so entwined with the print media that we consider them one.  But here’s the bottom line:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.

This is an essential point to remember.  We’ve come to think of the newspaper as a social institution.  The newspaper isn’t the institution; the news is.  We’re going through a chaotic time.  New outlets are springing up, old outlets are appearing less relevant or less sustainable, and it’s impossible to predict how things will settle out.  I’ll attempt one impossible prediction, however.  The newspaper (as we know it) isn’t long for this world, and that’s not a bad thing.

As the venerable old mediums struggle, technology has drastically lowered the cost of media production, creating millions of new competitors.  Again, this is an old story.  Between YouTube videos, self-produced music, self-published books, blogs, podcasts, there is no shortage of diversions available to consumers.  Did I mention it’s cheap?  This blog is hosted for $5 per month, plus a few bucks to register the domain.  I might not be as trustworthy as the New York Times, but I am certain that a new order will emerge.  People still need journalism, and someone will provide it.  There may just be a few (million) more contributors.

I don’t have any answers.  As Shirkey says, this stuff is brand-new.  Nobody can predict how this will shake out.  People are quick to point out how technology threatens social institions.  I don’t buy it.  Art, music, literature, journalism…these things are institions, and they aren’t in any danger.  The medium almost certainly will change, but the the medium is secondary to the true purpose.  Just relax, and remember that you’re living in a revolution.  It’s bound to be unnerving.


5 Responses to “Bad news for the newspaper business (but don’t look so worried)”

  1. mike.sapak on April 11th, 2009 5:43 am

    I have to plug the original essay one more time. It’s great, and you should read it.


  2. MattSadd on April 11th, 2009 10:22 pm

    Have to agree…the Oregonian went down to 3 days/week shortly after I moved here and I didn’t bat an eye. Nowadays I read USA Today and NY Times courtesy my iPhone. Soon Newsweek will be e-subscribable. Pretty much the only paper I have to deal with anymore are music scores, and that’s about the last medium I see being best served by physical paper…for my generation, anyways. Nice article!


  3. Mom on April 13th, 2009 6:07 pm

    I’m probably old-fashioned, but I enjoy reading my Detroit Free Press with a cup of coffee at the break table at work. I spend enough time working on my computer, and the newspaper is a form of relaxation to me. I’m sad to see it go. I still get most of my news from the radio on my daily commute, but the ritual of flipping through the newspaper is more of an addictive pass time than a real search for news. Nice commentary, though, Mike.


    mike.sapak Reply:

    I’m with you. Reading a hard copy of the New York Times is one of the things I miss most about the US.


  4. Another newspaper post (with bad statistics!) : on April 14th, 2009 6:39 am

    [...] I this would make a good follow-up to my last newspaper post. [...]

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