Newspapers: Contemplating their End or their Next Step

by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Enchanted April, a film based on a 1922 novel by Countess Elizabeth von Arnim, opens to the dreary winter cityscape of a drenched 1920 London and captures the chance glimpse by dowdy hausfrau Lottie Wilkins of a newspaper advertisement for a small, medieval Italian castle to let on the shores of the Mediterranean. The unfolding and folding of the newspaper, Lottie’s desperate pursuit of the rental, and her ultimate blossoming amid the Italian wisteria and sunshine could eventually prove an allegory for the transition of U.S. newspapers — to whatever it is they will become. But for now, they mostly stagnate in the dismal downpour of winter’s remnants, unable to step back from the chilling splash of online media speeding past them.

Perhaps that’s overwrought — possibly a symptom of watching the film too often — but countless reports of the newspaper industry’s pending demise serve a steady dose of failure that’s as dismaying to subscribers as London’s winter runoff is to pedestrians sprayed by passing hacks. Recent stories have touted repeated rounds of layoffs at papers across the nation, reductions in employee benefits, forced furloughs, bankruptcy filings and the folding of entire newspapers or their print editions. The significance of what in 1964 captured the attention of 80.8 percent of U.S. adults is becoming as archaic as dial phones, and with only 48.4 percent adult readership in 2007, daily print papers might be supplanted by cell phone headlines.

I imagine nevermore adding to the choice newspaper articles my grandmother carefully clipped with her best needlepoint scissors and filed away for the oddly interested grandchild.

The thrill of opening the paper to the page where the accomplishment of a loved one or the stunning failure of a leader is printed in black and white permanence is passing with the last of our World War II vets.

The rush of responding to breaking news before press time, topping the competition with the perfect combination of brute force and literary finesse, is as outmoded as Adolphe Menjou’s waxed mustache in The Front Page.

An image like that of my grandfather ensconced in his favorite reading chair and The Baltimore Sun, unwrapping caramel squares softened by afternoon rays, might never again be witnessed by sweets-seeking progeny.

I mourn the loss of the most tangible indicator of our freedom, the free press, but then I remember: When my husband succumbed to a subscription offer from The San Diego Union-Tribune, I scoffed at his investing in a failing paper that endorses only candidates who ride elephants and covers only news in our outlying burg of Fallbrook that includes unnatural death and illicit sex. And I canceled my last newspaper subscription when I left the paper for which I worked.

Now, instead of my morning fix of newspaper and caffeine, I peruse online news sources and, ah, well, drink coffee, which, okay, is all just another version of my morning fix — but with more comprehensive coverage from more direct sources. Why read in a newspaper what the president said when I can visit his website and read it untouched by an editor? So, despite his wise-assery, satirical commentator Stephen Colbert is on target: “A newspaper is like a blog that leaves ink on your hands and covers topics other than how much you love Fall Out Boy.”

All I lack is local news, still, although San Diego is home to two blossoming ink-free publications focusing on the city’s local news, San Diego News Network and Voice of San Diego, which is oft referenced in the media and consulted by similar ventures.

Voice of San Diego Editor Andrew Donohue wrote in an email, “I love holding my newspaper on a Sunday morning, too. But the daily printed newspaper is looking like it's not viable financially in the long term.… [T]he internet is a fundamentally better place to both produce news and receive it.… People are culturally tied to the actual newspaper product. But think if you flipped what's going on now and we were going from an online media world to a paper one. What would be the outcry then? I can only get my news once a day. The editors have to trim the stories artificially to make them short so they fit in an arbitrary amount of space. I can't click through and read past stories so that I understand what's going on behind this story. I can't read the actual documents that this story is based on. There's only one photo and it's in black and white.”

Convincing readers to pay for online news might prove the missing magic ingredient in newspaper’s transition, but nonetheless, alas, I agree with Donohue. And now I’m going to go cheer myself up with Enchanted April.

(Editor's Note: This piece is an abridged version of the original, cross-posted from Kit-Bacon Gressitt's personal blog, Excuse Me, I'm Writing.)

(For more background on this issue, please also see: "Newspapers: Why They're in Trouble (It's Not the Reason You Think), and What They Need to do to Survive." )

(Photo by Matt Callow of Ann Arbor, MI via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

There are two problems with paying for content. First, no one does it now, so how do you convince them to pay in the future?

Second, how much do you charge to generate enough revenue? A typical major metro charges $200 to $300 a year for daily delivery, which doesn't do much more than cover than the cost of delivery. If paying for content is going to replace lost advertising revenue, you may be talking about charging $1,000 a year. Good luck.

The solution may well be similar to cable and satellite TV, in which you pay your TV provider, and the TV provider pays the networks and cable stations. You'll pay your ISP, and the ISP will pass that back to its content providers.

kbgressitt said...

Hmm. No one was ever going to be willing to pay for ATMs, either. ...

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