North Wind And Sun

Going, going, gone – are newspapers on their way out?

Posted in Internet, journalism, newspapers by Ricardo Bilton on 11-May-2009

It’s rarely a good sign for your industry when the U.S. government starts holding hearings questioning your future.

But that’s just the position the newspaper industry finds itself in right now. For a variety of reasons, some products of self-induced gunshots, some not, the newspaper industry  now finds itself  struggling for its survival.

But Frank Rich’s recent column raises an interesting point, one that is, while sobering, vital in the discussion over where newspapers and journalism are going.

In the Internet era, many sectors of American media have been re-enacting their at first complacent and finally panicked behavior of 60 years ago. Few in the entertainment business saw the digital cancer spreading through their old business models until well after file-sharing, via Napster, had started decimating the music industry. It’s not only journalism that is now struggling to plot a path to survival. But, with all due respect to show business, it’s only journalism that’s essential to a functioning democracy. And it’s not just because — as we keep being tediously reminded — Thomas Jefferson said so.

His point is essentially this: While the future of the newspaper industry is in doubt, that of journalism, the raw product that newspapers commodify, is noticeably less so.

I draw corollaries to the record industry, which finds itself in a similar position. Robbed of their power and influence by the forces of the internet, the gatekeepers at the record industry are, like the newspapermen, scrambling to find a business model that works in this new and rapidly-changing climate. The record industry’s raw product, however – music – remains as strong as ever. In fact, it’s easily arguable that the music industry has been strengthened by the Internet. Pull media is the future, a reality that the newspaper and record industry folk are only beginning to come to terms with.

The simple truth here is that the Internet has become a force that vastly overpowers what established industries want to use it for. Information has a tendency to go where it wants, and with people sharing it, there is little any of us can do to contain it.

But that reality casts into further doubt the ability for any of the newspapers to survive. Just because information has the inclination to be free, doesn’t mean it should be. Giving away content indefinitely inevitably means suicide – that is,  unless advertising picks up the slack. But in today’s economy,  advertisers aren’t doing as much business as they used to – hence why so many newspapers are in the red right now.

Some see the future of newspapers – or at least their online portions – within the realm of a paid service, where users pay for access to one or a number of sites. The inevitable question, of course, is whether customers would be willing to pay for what they at one point got for free.

I’ll be honest and say that, yes, I’d pay ten dollars a month for access to The New York Times. But  how many people would agree with me? That’s the billion-dollar question.

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  1. […] to what I talked about yesterday, the newspaper industry’s future really hinges on how much people are willing to pay for what […]


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