Newspapers are dead — they just don’t know it. Says who? A Zogby poll released last week. 67% find traditional journalism “out of touch” and the Internet is the source of news for nearly half of Americans. Does this mean newspapers are dead? No. TV appears, we predict the death of movies, statist countries prevent TV channels from broadcasting movies on Sundays for fear of empty movie theaters. We know what happened. But this doesn’t mean newspapers will survive the Internet the way movie theaters successfully survive TV. The analogy fails for the following three reasons:
- The user experience difference
- The cost of the delivery medium
- Credibility, Out Of Touch
First, consider a difference of differences. Going (out) to the movies is, we know now, much different from watching a DVD (another threatened medium) from the living room couch (at home). Reading the NYT in paper form vs. on-line is much less different. And there is the annoying (to the incumbents) emergence of bloggers. The messy, shouting, unprofessional world of blogs. Ah, how come readers are so wrong? See the credibility problem below.
Second, the media cost. The law of physics say the market price of content inexorably converges towards the cost of the delivery medium. See music, see desktop software vs. on-line apps such as Google Docs, Microsoft Live or Salesforce.com. Newspapers “overshot” the target: the market price is already below the cost of the printed material thrown on your doorsteps. Advertisers make up the difference. Or they used to. Google now sucks the ad money out of the newspapers coffers. Google offers ways to start with smaller budgets (one of our companies started with $8 per day), better targeting (ads more likely to make sense to the reader), better analytics (what happens to the money I spend) and, of course, the medium du jour, the Internet. (Yes, Google makes noise about selling radio and paper advertising, it’s a sideshow.)
Last torpedo, credibility. Newspaper pros rightly criticize the blogosphere for being messy, noisy, dubious sources, echo chambers, bad writing, no standards. Millions of blogs with two readers each, the author and his mother. Unprofessional say the pros. But we know the establishment’s problem with parvenus: they have arrived. And here, the establishment is making it easy for the parvenus by selling out, by compromising its integrity. We’ll recall how Judith Miller at the NYT sold out to the Bush administration in preparing public opinion to the Iraq invasion. We had the Jayson Blair scandal forcing both the executive and the managing editor out. Did this electrify the paper into raising its standards instead of its nose? Two weeks ago, the NYT got a strong rebuke from its own ombudsman, the Public Editor. The cardinal sin was a whoring attack piece on McCain, with the badly sourced sex talk obscuring a more interesting discussion of money, legislation and lobbies. Just last week, the Technology section sported the kind of lazy journalism that makes the Valley insiders cringe. In essence, the piece explained how Nokia and other smartphone makers were going to listen to customers. Why start now? Do customers lead to real innovation or merely to better/faster/cheaper? None of these questions were asked, leading the reader to suspect what is known as a PR blowjob, an exchange of favors between a PR firm, its clients and the newspaper. Another beautiful example can be found in the Wall Street Journal with a hagiographic report of a Microsoft prince visiting the mujiks in outlying provinces of the empire.
Enough. The list could go on and on.
Newspapers will be around for a long time. The small number of survivors will be the ones that really straddle paper and the Net, some already do, albeit reluctantly, and replace their hauteur with actually higher quality standards. The cream always rises to the top, it’s just that the old one got stale. –JLG