Death of the Newspaper?

23 Mar

I don’t think I am particularly old, but my first summer job in journalism was at a small newspaper in Quebec, where – although we did write our stories on computers – they put together the paper every night using exacto knives and glue.

Okay, so maybe I am particularly old.

I still have copies of many of the articles I wrote that summer. I am sure they will be collector’s items one day, and not because my writing was particularly good. A few decades from now, I may be able to pull yellowing, fragile newspaper clippings out from the back of a closet  and show them to my grandchildren.

I’ll be able to wow them with tales of long-ago times and ancient artifacts.

And they’ll be able to take these family heirlooms with them on the space shuttle when they and their own grandchildren head off to colonize Mars.

Or they’ll sell it for a tidy sum at an antique auction somewhere between Ottawa and the moon.

Why? Well, you might have heard that newspapers are dying. In fact, you might have read about it in your daily newspaper. Or perhaps – increasingly more likely – you read about it for free online on the website of your daily newspaper.

Or you heard about it on Twitter.

The newspapers of today will soon be nothing but primordial relics.

In fact, some newspapers are beginning to shut down their ink-and-paper operations and transform themselves into Internet-only entities. Last month, for instance, the Post-Intelligencer – which had been appearing daily on the doorsteps of Seattle, Washington for almost a century and a half – shut down its printing presses and became an online newspaper, laying off a whole whack of employees in the process. Its cross-town rival, the Seattle Times, now may also be in trouble, because it depended on sharing advertising and production resources with the Post-Intelligencer.

Seattle isn’t the only North American city facing the prospect of no daily ink-and-newsprint paper. There are many American and Canadian cities that only have one newspaper to begin with, and many of those papers are in serious trouble.

Here in Ottawa, we have two dailies, but the Citizen – the larger of the two – is part of the troubled CanWest empire, which is drowning in debt and has seen its stock plummet dramatically over a number of years from about $20 a share to about 30 cents.

How did newspapers find themselves in such a pickle? It was a one-two whammy, really. The left jab has been the increasing influence and reach of the Internet over the past couple of decades, and the newspaper industry’s failure to capitalize on that trend in a profitable way.

Much of the classified ad revenue that was the industry’s great cash cow has been lost to websites such as Craigslist. And newspapers have not found a way to make money off their Internet editions, where they mostly give away content for free. Why buy a paper when you can get your articles quicker and at no cost off the Web?

The right hook – and potential knockout blow for so many newspapers – has been the Great Recession in which we now find ourselves. Newspapers relying more and more on advertising and less and less on paid subscriptions and newsstand sales have seen their revenues dry up as fewer and fewer of their clients pay for ads.

Some print watchers – most notably, Walter Isaacson in Time Magazine – have suggested that newspapers can only survive if they stop giving away their content for free online. Isaacson suggested that the industry adopt a model of “micropayments”, similar to the way that Apple’s iTunes sells music.

“Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day’s full edition or $2 for a month’s worth of Web access,” Isaacson wrote in February.

But it may be too late for that. Internet users are already used to getting their media content for free, and newspapers like the New York Times and the Globe and Mail have actually gone the other way in the last couple of years, giving away more of their online content for free.

More likely, we are in a transitional period for the media. Some newspapers will survive in some form. Others will die off. The need for the product – good journalism – remains, but the container in which it is delivered in future will be unrecognizable from the past.

Better start hoarding those collectors’ items.

For more on this topic, check out a debate I recently produced.

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