I couldn’t watch the big game on television a few nights ago, because of an unavoidable social obligation. (Thanks, friend who shall remain nameless, for scheduling your totally unnecessary birthday celebration at the same time my team was making its way through the NCAA tournament. The overpriced drinks were totally worth it.)
So, like any loyal fan, I checked the score throughout the night on my Blackberry. It wasn’t the same, but it sufficed.
Can you imagine a time when such a situation would force you to wait an entire night — until the next morning, when the newspaper came out — to get a recap of your team’s exploits the prior night? Before the Internet, ESPN 8, and the now extant “Mike and the Mad Dog,” this, young online readers, was how it was done.
Sounds archaic — and it is. As such, the newspaper is dying. Sen. Ben Cardin, D- Md., wants to breathe new life into the flailing industry by allowing newspapers to go nonprofit. It’s an interesting, if controversial, idea. But as we ponder the seemingly unavoidable death of newspapers, and scramble for last-minute resuscitation ideas, we should examine our circumstances with the objective and detached eye of a seasoned journalist (a good one, anyway.)
Newspapers have failed to adjust to the faster currents of this century’s technology tidal wave. Thanks to the cumbersome and time-consuming production of printing, we’re left simply to accept odd kinks in the system. Late sports results end up unreported in many newspapers. Overnight news has to wait a full day before it sees itself on paper. Most don’t even print their photos in color. And, most importantly, it’s incredibly indiscreet and unwise to slack off at the office by opening a poster-sized newspaper at your desk.
The whole thing is practically medieval. Even as most newspapers have now turned to the Web to stay current, their reluctance to kill off their print arms in favor of an online existence has been understandable from a sentimental view, but counter-intuitive from a business one.
Indeed, since the advent of moveable type in the 17th century, the newspaper remained practically unchanged for 400 years. “Big moments” in the technological history of the newspaper include an increase in the number of impressions per minute a press could handle, and the ability to print on both sides of a page at once. What other industry has existed in a nearly identical format to the one in which it first debuted?
The textile industry looks nothing like it did in the 12th century, for example. The telephone, thanks to wireless devices, and the radio, thanks to satellites, are also much changed in meaningful ways. Look at advances in photography over the past decade alone. Even commercial fishing — as time-honored and traditional an industry as one can find — has evolved, thanks sensitive fish-finding technologies that take the guesswork out of trolling.
Yet here we have the humble newspaper, a black-and-white prisoner of its Jurassic means of production, distribution and revenue generation, with the same old stuff it’s had for centuries. Does anyone turn to their local newspaper for a weather report? When was the last time you took out a classified ad to sell something or meet someone? Or actually mailed — not e-mailed — a so-called “letter” to the editor? Look at a newspaper from the 1800s next to one from 2009: they look virtually identical.
Folks on the left are blaming greedy newspaper owners for running their businesses into the ground. And folks on the right are blaming biased journalists. Both are red herrings. Certainly, some owners have been imprudent. And partisan journalism is a pitiful abuse of trust. But these are not the causes of newspapers’ demise . . . One only has to look at the success of online ventures — run by both the greedy and ungreedy, and promoting both left- and right-wing agendas — to see that.
The medium and the clunky limitations of its production are the problem. We demand that our news be both current and portable, and a newspaper is only the latter. With small wireless devices — even some airlines are offering customers in-flight Internet now — we can have both, and without ink smudges or elbowing the person in the seat next to us.
The potential death of newspapers is not good news, mind you, and if this exploration sounds somewhat giddy or ambivalent, it is not meant to. Local newspapers are the State’s watchdogs. With the government preparing to reach its sticky fingers into a frightening number of cookie jars — essentially owning our banks, our healthcare, and our homes – we need thoughtful, skeptical and courageous people on the ground to ferret out corruption and graft. But why must the death of print newspapers mean the death of good reporting?
As someone who has worked for newspapers in some form for more than a decade, I can tell you I am more than just a little fond of them. But it seems the rest of the country is not. A new poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that less than a quarter of those under 40 (23 percent) say they would miss the local newspaper they read most often a lot if it were to disappear. A meager 33 percent of those between 40 and 64 say the same. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the future of print news, but that question — whether we’ll miss it — is totally irrelevant.
Nostalgia and sentiment have no place in free market capitalism, as the death of one industry always inherently means the imminent rise of a better one. Since the advent of the Model T, is anyone still mourning the death of the buggy? Would we want to bring back wood-burning stoves? Should we all return to the abacus? I can’t even figure out a restaurant tip without the aid of a calculator. And thankfully, I don’t have to.
We should look at the decline of the newspaper — long in the making, really — as a potential opportunity for new media platforms to emerge. This can mean more jobs, more cost-efficient business models, less paper waste, and even better news delivery, revolutionizing time-honored institutions like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and giving small-town news engines sustainable life in alternate forms. After four centuries of stasis, the newspaper is more than due for an overhaul. It may be hard to say “goodbye,” but it no longer makes sense to say “don’t go.”
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