Newspaper Death Watch: Fat Lady Singing edition

BREAKING: Computers may affect the future of the news business. This photo, and the others in this post, are from the Winnipeg Tribune Archives held at the University of Manitoba. Original caption, from 1977: "Winnipeg has entered the era of small, affordable computers which have turned sci-fi into kitchen counter reality and raised the possibility of a computer in every home."
BREAKING: Computers may affect the future of the news business. MORE TO COME. (This photo, and the others in this post, are from the Winnipeg Tribune archives held at the University of Manitoba. Original caption, from 1977: "Winnipeg has entered the era of small, affordable computers which have turned sci-fi into kitchen counter reality and raised the possibility of a computer in every home.")

A lot of other people are linking to this Jeff Jarvis rant, so when I got an email directing me to read it — stat! — I delved in.

Jarvis argues that the newspaper industry has had decades to see, recognize and react to the changes that were coming — from Craigslist to Google — and that since they failed to change, they deserve to fail.

My (lengthy) analysis, after the jump:

It’s hard to argue with Jarvis’ indictment of “angry, old white men” and their “hail Mary” desperate moves, but the part I found most interesting was this:

You lost an entire generation. You lost the future of news. You blew it. You had a generation to reinvent the business but you did too little.

The best thing some of you can do is get out of the way and make room for the next generation of net natives who understand this new economy and society and care about news and will reinvent it, building what comes after you from the ground up. There’s huge opportunity there, for them.

And rather than playing the blame game, that’s what everyone should be talking about. The “future of newspapers” will not likely come from some newspaper stumbling onto a business model that “works” any more than the recording industry will suddenly go back to vinyl 45s.

The only thing that could make this picture more relevant to this post is if we took out the record player and put in a newspaper. It's just about as obsolete! Burn!
The only thing that could make this picture more relevant to this post is if we took out the record player and put in a newspaper. It's just about as obsolete! Burn!

The future of the recording industry springs from MySpace: from band-run websites that offer free music samples and links to an online store. And when I know that the money’s going straight to the band, and not to the suits — well, I might add a T-shirt or a bumper sticker, too. (At one point I might have suggested Oink as the future of the music industry — I would have gladly paid a subscription fee — but I no longer think so. There are too many competing rightsholders to make it worthwhile.)

Similarly, the future of newspapers — of online journalism — is likely to spring from microsources like Twitter, or blogs, or even Craigslist. No, it’s not obvious yet. But too many people are too invested in “creating” news, or filtering it (locals: see eBrandon, for all its faults. Imagine what will happen if that site crosses an advertising threshold and is suddenly able to hire a full-time fact-checker and rumour-squasher).

I see this as a three-stage process. First is content creation. We’re already there. Businesses and governments post news releases online. This isn’t investigative reporting, but it’s a start. People also post every bit of what happened to them online. There’s too much of this information — far too much — so stage two is aggregation and/or filtration. Blogs already do some of this, some of the time. Newspapers excel at this part of the game, as well as at stage three: monetization.

But because newspapers have lost their lead in content creation, people are flocking to other places for their information. That leads, eventually, to a breakdown in monetization. Translation: newspapers are losing money because people don’t get their information there anymore.

Sooner or later, someone, somewhere, will come up with a really great system to synthesize all the various information sources online — and that will make traditional newspapers nearly obsolete.

Sure, some people will still love them (old folk) and some larger news sources are, literally, too big to fail. I’m talking about huge news sources like CNN, the New York Times, etc — places that drive much of the chatter online. But smaller, community newspapers just don’t swing that sort of influence anymore.

What’s the best bet for these smaller news sources, then? Well, if I knew the answer to that, I’d be getting rich already. But my bet is that newspaper will have to harness the “me first” power of their readers. People want their own opinion flaunted online — and a community-based forum that lets them do that with the “authority” of the daily newspaper might be really attractive.

Of course, it would have to be separate from the “hard news” of the rest of the website — just take a look at the comments section of any newspaperperson’s blog. Chances are, you’ll find tons of “and you call this a news article?” blather, when clearly it’s not.

But imagine a newspaper that puts its reporters to work on actual investigative reporting — instead of chasing accidents or checking up on community rumours and gossip to generate stories.

Those hard news stories would be things that ordinary discussion forums just can’t touch. And over in the newspaper’s discussion forums, moderators can find the most popular rumours, make a quick phone call to city hall, say, and either verify them or squelch them. Tagged with an authoritative “yea” or “nay” label, the discussion can move forward much more productively.

Let community groups and school sports teams make their own posts, instead of pathetically hoping that their meagre press releases get picked up on a day when the newspaper has more room than normal.

Car accidents and other “breaking news” can almost be outsourced to people who happen to be on-scene with a camera phone. Look at CNN’s iReports for an early version of what some people will do for the fame of being on TV.

But it doesn’t have to be just fame. Let post creators share in ad revenues with the newspaper, like YouTube does. If you’re a consistently interesting post-maker, with consistently interesting points of view, or breaking news, you could make a bit of coin on the side.

Heck, imagine a columnist at the paper these days — let’s say a quilting columnist. They may make a few dollars for every column, but chances are that if the current editor doesn’t happen to like quilting, the column will be dropped — in the absence of market research. But put that column online, let the columnist do his or her own promotion, and if it proves popular, let them make some money based on that popularity. Or, if they want to do it for sheer personal love of quilting — fine! There’s infinite space on the Internet.

These days are over! Today's newspaper subscribers actually have computers in their homes -- and in their phones! -- that make delivery faster, easier and cheaper. Yes, even cheaper than child labour.

Look, I’m just riffing away here, I haven’t really thought this through. But I’d be curious to hear what other people think.

I can hear some of the objections — oh, it will take time and money to develop this website, and people will have to be hired to run it, and be moderators, etc. Well, yeah. But guess what? It also takes plenty of time and effort to personally deliver a printed copy of your product to every subscriber’s house every single day! Which method of distribution do you think is more efficient in the long run?

3 thoughts on “Newspaper Death Watch: Fat Lady Singing edition”

  1. I agree!

    The old days of printed media are DONE! Everyone relies on Twitter, blogs, Google, and Digg anyway.

    You would think, that in these rough times, that newspapers would get the hint! Yes, people are spending less and less and less, because they don’t have the means anymore.

    And when people can save money, they’re going to do it…even if it means saving $0.50-$1.50 everyday by getting their news online, rather than a newspaper.

    Besides, there’s too much censorship in the printed media anyway. With the internet, you can’t shut up the voice of the people…and all that was done in the ‘dark’ will be brought to the ‘light’.

  2. Yeah TM — when I want to read something intelligent, or have credible information on a topic of interest…Twitter or a blog put out by some self-important blowhard is the place to go.

    You get what you pay for. Blogs are great if you’re preaching to the converted. But you can only suck on your own bathwater for so long.

    I’ve never heard an acknowledgement that blogs essentially recycle news from other sources. You know — credible, accountable sources like that creaky old newspaper. Take a look at a site like, say…eBrandon and see the ill-informed, unaccountable rumour-mongering that takes place daily there.

    That’s your idea of informed discussion? Sorry. Doesn’t fly.

    Grant has some great ideas here. There will always be a future for news delivery and an educated, informed democracy requires that delivery to be held to disciplined standards. Blogs, Twitter, blah de blah blah are simply delivery mechanisms, not an actual production model. There’s a difference.

  3. Briefly — since I’m planning a lengthier (and positive) followup post on this subject — I just want to address a couple of things.

    Colin, you raise some interesting points. First of all, you’re absolutely right — many blogs (including this one) are primarily recyclers. That is, we take in content from other sources and pass it along. Do we add to that content? Perhaps, in that we comment, contextualize or filter — also functions of a good newspaper. But blogs don’t generate much in the way of original reporting, I think on that we can agree.

    But take a look at newspapers — there’s a heck of a lot in newspaper that is just glorified press-release-rewriting, too. It’s important — and newspaper reporters at the very least take the time to call someone for comment, or get the opposing side — but it’d be a pretty thin paper if there weren’t any stories based on press releases, reports, meetings, etc.

    Secondly, I think it’s maybe a bit rash to dismiss blogs, Twitter, YouTube, eforums, etc, out-of-hand. They’re just delivery mechanisms. Sure, a lot of the content is trash — but a lot of the content that’s delivered on paper is trash — if you include grocery lists, permission slips, debit receipts, etc.

    Newspaper are experimenting with Twitter and with blogs — sports reporters live-blog games and political reporters live-blog conventions. And for all the crap that’s on YouTube, there’s a surprising amount of great stuff, too. Comedy, music videos — try searching for home reno how-tos. Like everything else on the Internet, it’s just a matter of finding the needle of good buried in the haystack of bad.

    Like I said, though, more in a few days, I’ve got ideas filling themselves out in my head.

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