Can 20th-Century News and Newspapers Survive in a Digital World?

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Is There a Future?
Ultimately, the question hangs out there whether newspapers have waited too long or done enough. When Google VP for search products & user experience Marissa Meyer testified before the Senate's subcommittee on the future of newspapers in May, she took newspapers to task for failing to give the reader incentives to hang around, which could have given papers a head start online in generating additional revenue. "When a reader finishes an article online, it is the publication's responsibility to answer the reader who asks, ‘What should I do next?' Click on a related article or advertisement? Post a comment? Read earlier stories on the topic?"

Cohen says, "There is no silver bullet that allows publishers to roll back the clock to the way the business was 5 or 10 years ago. You could get rid of Google news and it doesn't fix that or change the equation." But he adds in regard to Mayer's comment, "It's important to innovate and explore different ways of making money, but what oftentimes gets lost is that you need to innovate with the product as well, and you need to think about what users want. You can put up whatever pay walls you want, but if you don't put up what people want, you're not going to be successful."

NYU's Rosen completely agrees and sees this problem-the failure to understand that you must add value to succeed-as a fundamental flaw regardless of the revenue model. He believes newspapers need to find ways to use new tools to involve many more people in creating editorial value, but even if they do that, there is still no guarantee of success. "They may figure out some payment model that's better than what came before, but I'm afraid from what I hear, there are a lot of people overestimating the uniqueness of what they create. If you are making that error, there is no system that will overcome that."

Cohn muses that perhaps we've reached a point where journalism might not be sustainable as a business model in the way we have always thought about it, and it might require community funding to keep this valuable service going. "There are certain things, in truth, that have never really been sustainable. Poetry has never been sustainable, but people would always argue society needs art, and it has been funded by wealthy people to sustain the arts," he says.

In the end, according to longtime digital industry veteran Terry, if your industry's time has come, there is little you can do to stop forward progress. "I guess my bottom line is that Adam Smith's invisible hand will always win out. A lot of great companies have faded away because they became irrelevant when they refused, couldn't, and/or didn't know how to change." He adds, "What is interesting is how this is really just cycles of technological improvements. The challenge today is how fast it's coming. Frankly I don't think the innovation will ever come from the newspapers. It will come from an entrepreneur or two and be fueled by the passion for journalism's mission."

And if that's true, perhaps it will be small companies such as Journalism Online, Spot.us, and Publish2 that lead us to the future of news. Whatever the solution, if indeed there is one, the traditional newspaper as we knew it in the 20th century worked for its time, but it is no longer a viable model in the age of the internet, the social network, and the 24/7 news cycle. If newspapers are to survive, they have to adapt quickly to this fact and find new ways to make money in an increasingly competitive landscape, or they risk being a footnote in media history.


Companies Featured in This Article

CWT Group: www.cwtgroup.net
Financial Times: www.ft.com
Google: www.google.com
Journalism Online, LLC: www.journalism online.com
PressThink: http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/press think
Publish2, Inc.: www.publish2.com
Shore Communications, Inc.: http://shore.com
Spot.us: www.spot.us

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