I bought a New York Times today. Sometimes, there's something to be said for having more than five pounds of "dead tree" under one's arm. There was a time when the Sunday New York Times would be pushing ten pounds (or maybe it just appeared that way to my younger arms). No one can deny, however, that papers are getting thinner. So are magazines. In a recent article in The New Yorker entitled "Out of Print", Eric Alterman discussed what appears to be the inevitable death of newspapers. On This Week in Tech #138 Leo Laporte, Steve Gillmor, Mark Fraunfelder, and Molly Wood discussed this issue even further.
And it seems that everyone's conclusion is the same — newspapers are dying. Some, like Molly Wood (the only person with a journalism degree on the TWiT 138 panel), believe that newsprint it going to last longer than we think it will. Others think newspapers are already dead. What made the TWiT discussion incredibly interesting was the discussion of what happens after newspapers are gone. Here's a short excerpt (which I transcribed myself, so any errors are entirely my fault), edited for length, where they discuss Twitter as a model for news delivery:
Steve: …I was gonna use the "T" word to point out, and the "T" word stands for Twitter, that with Twitter, I'm getting most of my news through links on Twitter, which are basically going in to the item level. You know, RSS feeds, whatever it is that is carrying the specific information. So as that happens, the viability of an aggregated print source, or even an online website, is really going to be under attack for the next few years … It's become the signaler of news. It's the first place that news shows up; it shows up here much before the cable networks get things.
Molly: Although isn't it then… is it a mainstream source for anyone or is it a sort of a very, an even more kind of carefully spliced agenda setting? Because you're getting that news, then, not, I assume, from the Twitter.com homepage but from the people that you follow?
Steve: Exactly, so there are micro-communities that are forming, and it's a very elitist model at the moment, but the mechanics of it can go vertical at any moment, and in fact, that's already starting to happen.
Leo: Well that is one of the things that's unusual about Twitter… you build the list of people you follow so you control totally; I mean, if you want people chattering about LOLcats all day you could have that. Or if you want somebody doing substantive news, you could follow those people.
Steve: And it becomes like a bunch of ships passing in the night. You don't know what's going on in those communities, and they don't know what's going on in yours.
Leo: Right. Does that seem like an efficient model?
Molly: I know! I can't stand that. The way you described it sounds … I mean, I never would have thought that the newspaper version, you know The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times elitist agenda setting, would actually seem like a broader model. The way you're describing it sounds kind of horrible, like self selecting news is the death of news.
To me, this sounds sort of nightmarish. And of course, it currently depends on the existence of primary news sources, which in the Internet world, is almost always newspapers. On the same TWiT episode, Mark Fraunfelder said "I've always thought that there's kind of a virtuous circle between bloggers and newspapers because they help each other advance stories all the time," and this is essentially the truth as it exists today. Bloggers are primarily secondary sources, and in some cases, tertiary sources (when they comment not on the papers, but on another blogger's statements).
I'm not attached to newsprint. In fact, I rarely buy a newspaper. If I do, it's always a Sunday paper, simply because if I'm in the mood to scan a paper, I want to have a lot to scan. But I get most of my news online. I try to read a large variety of sources, and I sometimes will read up to ten articles on the same topic, simple to get depth. The Internet affords me an opportunity to get a wide variety of opinions on topics.
However, it also affords me the ability to select which topics are important to me. In my case, almost 80% of my news intake is technology related, whether it's business news about Internet startups, analysis of competing gadgets, or gossip news about Internet personalities. In a newspaper, that's not true. I may not always get the depth of coverage I want, but I always get a breadth of coverage on a variety of topics.
Some of that is alleviated by scanning aggregate news sources, like Digg, Reddit, or Newsvine but I don't necessarily do that everyday, and even if I did, those communities are very different from each other. News that is important to Digg readers is not necessarily prioritized the same on Reddit. Ten years ago when you walked into your office, there was always a general consensus of what "The Headlines" were. That is no longer true. I rarely know what people are talking about on certain topics, and they rarely know what I'm so heated about. Newspapers created a national voice. That national voice is really the most serious casualty in the war between print and online media.
As we move further into a global community, that might not be a bad thing, but I will miss it. I think Molly Wood is right — newspapers will be around longer than we think, if only because the Baby Boomers, and to a lesser extent, Generation X, will hang on to it. But the business model has to change if newspapers are to survive the coming decades. They need to build community in the same way that Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace have, and they need to find new ways to monetize their content (it was pointed out in the Alterman article that Craigslist has taken away they primary monetary gain to newspapers — classified ads).
Like everything else in the world, news has to become less passive and more dynamic and interactive if it is to survive. Bloggers, Twitterers, and Diggers are not journalists (well, some are, but the vast majority are not because we lack access), but they have all hit on the fact that people prefer talking about the news, rather than just reading it. I'll end with Molly Wood's comments about the Internet from TWiT: "…I think that the Internet and the World Wide Web are the greatest thing that humanity has ever accomplished. I mean not to wax a little melodramatic, but it's phenomenal the amount of information that we can access and that people can access; really disenfranchised people can access. So when it comes right down to it, the quality will sort itself out. The fact that that information is there at all is kind of a modern miracle."