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

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Until fairly recently, if you wanted to publish a news article or magazine feature, it required a large staff and huge presses housed in vast buildings. It took great wealth to buy the means to publish and a factorylike process to sell the ads, produce the news, and distribute the product. Because newspaper production was well beyond the means of most people, we relied on newspaper and magazine publishing companies with the requisite resources to produce the news for us, and in return, they charged large sums of money for display and classified ads-and they thrived. Today, that's all changed.

The cost of content production and delivery on the web has plummeted to almost zero. Large presses and big staffs are no longer required to generate and distribute the news. Ad dollars have been moving to the internet for years. Now social marketing campaigns are offering alternatives to traditional ad buying. Services such as craigslist and Monster have supplanted the once-lucrative print classified business. Today, news is reported as it happens, sometimes by ordinary citizens on blogs or via social networks; people can get the news in many ways beyond the paper version of a publication delivered daily or weekly.

As a result, newspapers and magazines are failing at an accelerated rate. Consider these statistics about 2009 alone:
• According to FOLIO, 279 magazines closed in the first half of 2009. From March through the end of June, 77 new magazines were launched while 184 closed down.
• According to Silicon Alley Insider, as of the end of June, 105 newspapers had closed since the beginning of 2009.
• The New York Times Co. is reportedly drowning in red ink and has been taking bids for The Boston Globe (and is even considering selling its Manhattan headquarters). The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times are also facing monumental financial crises.
• Big city icons such as the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the San Francisco Chronicle have already been closed (or moved to online-only versions).

It is obvious that something changed in the newspaper market well beyond the short-term setbacks businesses face in any recession. While some in the industry blame Google for siphoning off ad revenue, the problem is far more complex. Whatever the reasons, as a business, newspapers can no longer afford to sit back and hope to recover when the economy rebounds. They need to try new ways of doing business and find alternate means of raising revenue. While there is little argument that a free press is a linchpin of a thriving democracy, it's less clear how to save newspapers from the current morass or if it's even possible to save the news business as we once knew it.

How Did Newpapers and Publishers Get Into This Mess?

As newspapers closures climb to startling numbers in 2009, it's easy to think it's a sudden phenomenon driven by the economic crisis. However, the weakening of the news business has been an ongoing process for many years. John Blossom, president of the consulting firm Shore Communications, Inc. and author of the book Content Nation, sees a combination of factors that have brought us to this point, but he believes erosion of the print media monopoly is a key element. "It boils down primarily to a simple issue of supply and demand. Print media had a long period of exclusive distribution of what people considered to be news," Blossom explains. "TV news began to erode newspapers' monopoly and the web accelerated it dramatically by providing people access to substitute sources of news in new formats we couldn't get before."

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and author of the PressThink blog, agrees with Blossom and says that when newspapers lost their distribution monopoly, it affected every type of paper, regardless of the ownership model. "The distribution puzzle that had been efficiently solved by the printing press, the trucks, and the delivery boys has fundamentally changed for the family-run paper and the chain newspaper," he says. But Rosen also blames a failure to respond to a changing market as being directly related to media corporatization.

"Why wasn't this industry able to anticipate this and come up with a more creative response to what, after all, were pretty long-term trends we were seeing years ago? Then I think the corporatization of the news and the need to extract very high and very consistent profits is extremely important." Rosen believes that part of the reason the newspaper industry finds itself in its current plight is because these corporate papers felt no need to invest in the long term or to encourage innovation.

David Cohn, founder of Spot.us, an experiment in community-funded investigative journalism, thinks newspapers failed to understand that what they do is not a finished product, but an ongoing process. "News organizations started thinking about what they do as a finished product that they slapped down on your door step every morning and walked away," Cohn says. "But really, journalism is a process. It's a series of things you do. You go out and you collect information, you filter it, check it, and distribute the information." Cohn says that this doesn't stop when the article is written; it continues.

He points to the persistent attitude many newspapers had about links. They didn't want to link to other publications and websites because the goal was to keep you locked in their information silo. This was a flawed view in Cohn's opinion because links work both ways. In fact, the same journalism process he described could have become a process that news organizations used to share with each other, but Cohn says that because newspapers considered the published article as a finished product, they would silo it off from other papers, effectively cutting the process off at its head. "Newspapers have to drastically rethink what they do."

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