Monday, November 23, 2009

The Future of Newsprint

Ken Auletta’s recent book, “Googled”, contains a good analysis of the woes of the newspaper industry. (I’ll be writing a review of this shortly, when I’ve mulled it over some more.) The fact is that the moguls fiddled while Rome burned, so it’s a bit late to wake up and start worrying about it now. Even if they reach the kind of settlement with Google that the book publishers did, it won’t support the cost structure of print.

I think most paper news is doomed, thanks to a combination of lifestyle changes, competition for ads, and other entertainment choices. It’s tough to read the paper every day if you drive to work instead of taking a train or a bus, then spend most evenings ferrying your kids around. Meanwhile, eBay and Craig’s List are killing the classifieds section, and bored people in airports have a wide variety of gadgets to play with.

Decades ago, my idea of a good time was to spend the Sunday lunch hour in a London pub with the Times and a pack of cigarettes. (That was in the good old days of Harold Evans, before Rupert Murdoch got his hands on it.) One had time on one’s hands and the bandwidth to enjoy the serendipity of bundled news. I also did the Telegraph crossword every day, puzzling over cryptic clues and references to the classics.

Now, it seems I don’t have time for a paper; even when I buy one I don’t read it. I get generic news from NPR during my hour in the car. Everything else that’s daily I get through my Mac or iPhone, supplemented in any given month by the only two news magazines I feel are worth reading: the Economist and Foreign Policy. I don’t watch Network TV for the same reason I never took LSD: I like my mind the way it is.

On the business side, print banner ads and classifieds are a thing of the past. So if people don’t want to pay real money for paper news, no one is going to pick up the tab for them. Government subsidies are a bad idea; the Repugnant Party is right for once. Private ownership of newspapers is the lesser of two evils, but it’s a moot point, because newsprint is going the way of stone tablets, papyrus scrolls and illuminated manuscripts.

Time Warner and News Corp keep pretending the Emperor has clothes, because nudism (free) isn’t an option for them. But, if there were business models out there other than ads or subscriptions, we would have found them by now. Messing around with portals and micropayments is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ocean’s pouring in, but the band plays on. We’ve already seen what 99c album tracks have done to the record industry. (Network TV is next for the great unbundling; I can’t wait.)

One can only imagine what would have happened if the news moguls had encouraged their talent to create vertical Web sites around travel, food, wine, real estate, geographies, etc., turned them into virtual communities, and then AdSensed them. Such a strategy might not have saved the day, but I think they’d be in better shape than they are now. Online ads for electronic news are currently worth about a tenth of paper ads, but that’s partly because the targeting is demographic and not by interest, as the Web has come to expect.

But I sometimes think the real issue isn’t money or advertising. It’s that people have less time to reflect than ever before, while the world is getting more and more complex. The blurring of traditional male and female roles has left everyone responsible for everything: earning money, food prep, child rearing, transportation, etc. The blurring of work and non-work has similarly pushed everyone towards being ‘always on’ with not much downtime. It’s not good or bad; it’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile, since the end of the Cold War, global politics has become much more complicated. Reading a multi-page article about Somalia requires time, effort and thought; not many people have that kind of resource to spare during a 21st Century day. My sense is that they find it easier to dial up their favorite talk show and listen to someone guaranteed to agree with them while pretending to have all the answers.

The only interesting question that remains is: who will pay for in-depth reporting? My suspicion is that most people won’t miss it, any more than most people miss opera or orchestral music. Like music, journalism is being ripped, remixed, mashed up and deskilled. Not many folks noticed when drum machines replaced drummers, samples replaced players, and singers could no longer carry a tune (just as not many notice that Glenn Beck isn’t a journalist). The only problem is, cannibalism isn't a long-term dietary strategy; someone has to create.

Those who want quality news may have to pay a fairly high price for it in future, because those who produce it will have to be supported one way or another. One form of support is bundling business news with an expensive feed of must-have professional information. But what about the stuff business typically doesn’t care about, e.g., human rights, corruption in high places, and the fate of animal habitats? My prediction is that stuff will go not-for-profit, electronic, and be highly politicized for the most part.

Earlier this year, Michael Hirschorn's Atlantic article "End Times" predicted that the financially endangered NYT might end up as a "bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post", in which reduced staff would mix original reporting with aggregated stories having the NYT seal of approval. I wouldn't bet on it. My prediction is that the new, improved Huffington Post will be the Huffington Post.