Newspapers: I’m Not Dead Yet or Dead Men Walking?

25 Mar ’07

The discussion today about whether newspapers are dead or merely have a flesh wound, and if only wounded what they must do to survive, reminds me of the “bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. To some extent, this is semantics – there can’t be any serious debate now about the basic point that whatever survives of the North American print news business in 10 years will be a different beast entirely than what newspapers are now. Print newspapers as we know them are dead men walking, forced into urgent adaptation mode by the obvious suspects. And as I noted recently (and the count today at the same cafe right now is 9 laptops + 1 newspaper), “these kids today” don’t give a darn about print, unless perhaps they’re looking for something to idly flip through for free while on the subway. So there’s a forced stale date on each newspaper, and the clock is ticking. The only question in my mind is what’s going to get the papers first – that stale date, social media, or whatever comes next. I never touch a paper now except for Saturday mornings, or unless I need something to read while I’m eating alone at a restaurant, and of course there are lots of folks like me, and lots more with each passing day.

My friend and mesh partner Mark Evans notes that the latest newspaper circulation numbers look OK, particularly in Canada. I personally don’t take a lot of guidance from the latest numbers because I suspect they are skewed by the growth of free papers that, if anything, give folks good reason to skip their paid cousins, and ultimately are really kind of a gimmicky sideshow to the bigger picture of what’s happening in media. And in any event, despite flat or over-so-slightly up numbers in Canada recently the long term circulation trend has been pretty steadily down. (And I personally don’t think the issue is really about what’s happening just in San Francisco – circulation at major papers has been hit hard across the US.)

I also think that the “this is what newspapers must do to survive” line of discussion, while interesting, is largely a sideshow, and really only of interest over the next 12-36 months. All of these steps are steps that all newspapers will ultimately take, in one combination or to some extent, or another – papers simply have no choice, really. But they’re just the very obvious things that newspapers must do right away. Because other forms of media are adapting at the same time, as everything moves online. Over time, the various forms of media (news, ‘tainment, local information, text, audio, video, community) will necessarily undergo a Darwinian adaptation that will see them mutate and converge. Competition will increase across geographies (CBC vs. NPR vs. BBC; and so on), across media formats (TV vs. radio vs. papers vs. magazines vs. blogs), and so on, to force this process. New revenue models will emerge (or won’t) to hasten the adaptation. And what we end up with will be a constellation of media that will look very, very different than what we have now.

Last note: Scott says that all the papers need is a little imagination. I get the idea, but I don’t believe that even imagination is required. A lot of great ideas are out there already and don’t need to be imagined, and the papers are still adapting at a glacial rate. They don’t need imagination – they need a deepening sense of crisis (we’re close, but not quite there yet) to force the old generation of managers out and usher in a different vision of what papers ought to be. This isn’t about ideas – it’s about having an adaptive culture – the antithesis of the typical newspaper culture, IMO.

Update: the obvious point that we have no idea what technology will bring after the current wave bears repeating, perhaps. This entire discussion about print news to some extent assumes that technology will stand still while media adapts to it. But, for example, we’re at an inflection point with mobile technology and muniwifi or at least high speed wireless now – what happens when the potential of mobile really comes of age? What happens if everything Jeff Jarvis has been hoping for books comes to pass? And so on. Trite, for sure, but the only constant thing about what comes next is that it will all change all the time, and that necessarily whatever media is in the not-so-distant future will bear only a passing resemblance to what it is today – print news and the rest.

Updater: The first really innovative bit of thinking I’ve seen in a while on this topic is on the O’Reilly Radar today – what about the importance of making the ecology sustainable?

Updatest: Mathew’s observation that we should focus on the news and not the paper, is well taken. As I note above, there’s so much more going on here. But I think I expect newspapers to be forced to evolve a lot more than Mathew does.

Updaterest: Mike Arrington’s point of view on what it’s like to be one of the guys changing how things are done is here. Leave it Mike to be entirely uncontroversial about the issue: “Newspapers need to get over the mentality that they and they alone are qualified to gather, analyze and write news (see Lazarus’ second post above for their side of the argument). Bloggers as a group are just kicking their ass all over the place, even when it comes to doing real, live journalism stuff. Like talking to sources and digging for a story. Most print journalists are 9-5 types, and many are union can’t easily be fired. That makes them lazy (I would be).”

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