The future of news

The incurable sickness of the news business, occasionally remarked on here, appears to be taking a fatal turn.  A combination of factors is now at work, as the recession hits an industry already wrecked by competition from new communication technologies.  Even the presidential election, the ultimate news magathon, has worked against the news media, which was perceived by half of the electorate — rightly, in my opinion — to be siding with the other half.

The NYT, itself weakened and downsized, recently provided a bleak summary of the industry’s condition:

It’s been an especially rotten few days for people who type on deadline. On Tuesday, The Christian Science Monitor announced that, after a century, it would cease publishing a weekday paper. Time Inc., the Olympian home of Time magazine, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, announced that it was cutting 600 jobs and reorganizing its staff. And Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, compounded the grimness by announcing it was laying off 10 percent of its work force — up to 3,000 people.

Clearly, the sky is falling. The question now is how many people will be left to cover it.

It goes on. The day before, the Tribune Company had declared that it would reduce the newsroom of The Los Angeles Times by 75 more people, leaving it approximately half the size it was just seven years ago.

The Star-Ledger of Newark, the 15th-largest paper in the country, which was threatened with closing, will apparently survive, but only after it was announced that the editorial staff would be reduced by 40 percent.

And two weeks ago, TV Guide, one of the famous brand names in magazines, was sold for one dollar, less than the price of a single copy.

The sky is falling:  but only a news producer will presume that the rest of us will miss the event unless it is “covered” by a “journalist.”  Given the economics of the situations, the sky will crash down first on newspapers like the worthy old Monitor.

About a year ago, I had a friendly chat with a German academic, a man in his mid-thirties.  I observed the disparity between online readership and newspaper subscriptions, and I predicted misery for the newspaper industry.  The academic agreed, but believed  that newspapers could save themselves simply by moving online:  he was particularly pleased with the large readership of Der Spiegel’s online site.

This idea rests on a misunderstanding of Internet economics.  Newspapers turned a profit because of advertisers, but the online model, set by craigslist, holds that ads should be free or nearly so.  Online newspapers don’t make money.  The problem faced isn’t one of readership numbers but of a failed business model:  true even of the heavily subsidized Monitor.  Once a critical mass of advertisers defect from paper copy, newspapers will flatline.  The only interesting question left is that of the moment of death.

The German academic seemed horrified by all this.  “How will people get news?” he kept asking.  “They must have newspapers and magazines, to be informed!”

That is a moral proposition:  people can’t be trusted to discover and digest information, and must be spoon-fed by journalistic guardians, people who make an event important merely by “covering” it.  I have dealt with this argument elsewhere.  It’s human nature to elevate one’s worth and demonize the competition.  No doubt, makers of horse-drawn buggies believed in their day that the automobile was an instrument of the devil. But moralizing won’t save newspapers.

What of the news business as a whole?  I am on record predicting its doom:  “When the last Baby Boomer is lowered to the grave,” I prophesied, “he will be clutching the last news report in his cold, dead hands.”

The reason is generational.  Older people are hooked on news.  Middle-aged people are middlingly interested.  But according to every survey I have seen, there’s a massive disinterest in news — local, national, or international — among younger people.

Still, another possibility exists.  The surveys also show a small sliver of full of passionate conviction:  young people who love news and consume it obsessively.  Most Islamic terrorists probably belong to this group — watch, if you can, this video of Mohammed Siddique Khan, 30-year-old suicide bomber, ranting like the crustiest of old farts about the “media . . . this predictable propaganda machine . . .”

Other youthful news consumers behave more peaceably.  There are not nearly enough of them to sustain a mass industry, but they may be passionate enough to create a niche market which small, splashy news companies might satisfy:  the informational equivalent, say, of professional soccer teams in America.


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