Years and years after some pundits began predicting the end of newspapers, the newspapers themselves are finally realizing that it’s over. Huge debt, high costs, declining subscription rates, plummeting ad base–will the last one out please turn off the lights.
On their way out, though, we’re hearing a lot of, "you’ll miss us when we’re gone…" laments. I got to thinking about this. It’s never good to watch people lose their livelihoods or have to move on to something new, even if it might be better. I respect and honor the hard work that so many people have put into newspapers along the way. If we make a list of newspaper attributes and features, which ones would you miss?
Woodpulp, printing presses, typesetting machines, delivery trucks, those stands on the street and the newsstand… I think we’re okay without them.
The sports section? No, that’s better online, and in no danger of going away, in fact, overwritten commentary by the masses is burgeoning.
The weather? Ditto. Comics are even better online, and I don’t think we’ll run out of those.
Book and theater and restaurant reviews? In fact, there are more of these online, often better, definitely more personal and relevant, and also in no danger of going away.
The full page ads for local department stores? The free standing inserts on Sunday? The supermarket coupons? Easily replaced.
How about the editorials and op eds? Again, I think we’re not going to see opinion go away, in fact, the web amplifies the good stuff.
What’s left is local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news. Perhaps 2% of the cost of a typical paper. I worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government or the local government can do what it wants without intelligent coverage. I worry about the abuse of power when the only thing a corrupt official needs to worry about is the TV news. I worry about the quality of legislation when there isn’t a passionate, unbiased reporter there to explain it to us.
But then I see the in depth stories about the gowns to be worn to the inauguration or the selection of the White House dog and I wonder if newspapers are the most efficient way to do this anyway.
The web has excelled at breaking the world into the tiniest independent parts. We don’t use this to support that online. Things support themselves. The food blog isn’t a loss leader for the gardening blog. They’re separate, usually run by separate people or organizations.
Punchline: if we really care about the investigation and the analysis, we’ll pay for it one way or another. Maybe it’s a public good, a non profit function. Maybe a philanthropist puts up money for prizes. Maybe the Woodward and Bernstein of 2017 make so much money from breaking a story that it leads to a whole new generation of journalists.
The reality is that this sort of journalism is relatively cheap (compared to everything else the newspaper had to do in order to bring it to us.) Newspapers took two cents of journalism and wrapped in ninety-eight cents of overhead and distraction. The magic of the web, the reason you should care about this even if you don’t care about the news, is that when the marginal cost of something is free and when the time to deliver it is zero, the economics become magical. It’s like 6 divided by zero. Infinity.
I’m not worried about how muckrakers will make a living. Tree farmers, on the other hand, need to find a new use for newsprint.