The crossroads

It's still not uncommon to see people gathered in public places reading newspapers, large and small, held open like white sails. But watch carefully, for newspapers are in the grip of a slow fade.

There was a time when dailies were ubiquitous, hawked on street corners, sold in smoke shops and newsstands, bold banner headlines announcing the story du jour. The Fourth Estate, buttressed by the First Amendment, was and is an essential part of our system of checks and balances. If our democracy is to thrive, the citizenry must be informed. Government is, after all, reflexively secretive.

While there are still those who prefer holding a newspaper in hand — the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink — their ilk are slowly disappearing. What is occurring is a transition from print journalism, meaning the paper you're holding, to online news, like the screen you are reading. This is no small thing.

Over the last year, major dailies have either closed or been put up for sale. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, after 146 years, printed its final issue last week. The Rocky Mountain News shut down three weeks ago; the Tucson Citizen may soon follow; and The Christian Science Monitor will print its last edition March 27.

The San Francisco Chronicle lost $1 million a week last year and is in trouble, as are The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Star Ledger in New Jersey, and The New Haven Register. The companies that own The Denver Post, The San Jose Mercury News and The Detroit News are considering or have filed for bankruptcy.

It is tempting to rail against the loss of these newspapers (or grieve for what their demise means), but that would be the equivalent of the buggy-whip maker standing in front of his shop shaking a fist at the passing motorists. What is occurring is inevitable. And it begs the question: What will take the place of newspapers as we know them?

While print circulation has dropped from a high of 62 million two decades ago to some 49 million today, and most dailies have been hemorrhaging advertisers, online readership has increased to almost 75 million. The tipping point came last year when, according to the Pew Research Center, more people got their news online than paid for it by buying a newspaper or magazi ne.

Perhaps the news staffs that provide so much of the national, international and investigative reporting will simply be shifted to online sites. But not likely.

As was reported in the New York Times, "Industry executives who once scoffed at the idea of an Internet-only product now concede that they are probably headed in that direction, but the consensus is that newspapers going all digital would become drastically smaller news sources for the foreseeable future."

The troika of newspaper revenue has always been subscriptions, newsstand sales and advertising. Online papers are reliant on advertising alone (which contracted last year), and unless they can construct a new business model and a form of payment that is quick and easy, allowing impulse buying of stories and information, they will struggle.

Some in the industry have suggested micropayments, akin to those used by iTunes' 99-cent-per-tune format.

The idea of paying for content, however, is a huge hurdle. The ethos of the Internet runs counter to paying for an article or news item. Try and imagine paying to Google (now a verb). In contrast, without hesitation, people do pay to text.

The reality is that if a PayPal system can't be devised for news content, newspapers will morph into something else. The result will likely not be a cadre of news reporters committed to fulfilling the purpose of the Fourth Estate; rather, it will likely be the elevation of blogger-like, piggyback writing absent solid research or two sources verification, all of it passed off as legitimate news. And these online outfits won't be opening news bureaus in Kabul or Tokyo and they won't be sending reporters to Rwanda or Darfur or the Gulf Coast or Cedar Rapids or Wall Street or city hall.

As for those who bought ink by the barrel and paper by the truckload, well, some will be curbside along with the buggy-whip maker, shaking their fists at passing techies married to their WiFi laptops, digging their state-of-the-art Blackberries, while lusting after the next generation of Bluetooth, traveling the Internet highway, absent toll roads, pedal to the metal.

For those looking back, well, the crossroads moment has come and gone and we're now headed in a new direction.

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