Friday, January 16, 2009

Print is Dead, and I Don't Feel So Good Myself

In the 1984 film, Ghostbusters, mousy secretary Janine tries to sex up uber-nerd scientist Egon Spengler by impressing him with the books she's read, to which Egon replies: "Print is Dead."

It's no secret I get frustrated with electronic journalism. Conservative, liberal, politics, showbiz, lifestyle, all of them, they just disappoint the crap out of me sometimes. When I was a kid, there were some truly great journalists working in the electronic media, but, the only one left in the business is Barbara Walters and she's a hundred and eight(sorry, Barbara).

For fifty years, print journalism was able to compete by offering more depth, and better quality. Newspapers survived by doing the same things TV and Radio news did, only better, even though they were less convenient. They were even pretty profitable.

Then along came the web, and you could get the same data (the exact same articles in many cases) without having to deal with a stack of printed pages. It could have been really cool. Newspapers could do pretty much what they always had, but without the expense of having to print anything.

The problem was, it's a lot harder to sell advertising on the web. Most advertisers only want to pay for web advertising if the end user actually clicks on their ad. Nobody wants to pay just for the exposure without somebody clicking on the ad, even though anybody who's ever studied advertising will tell you, exposure is the most valuable part of advertising. There's also no way to insert a whole page of advertising in the middle of the news on the web.

Newspapers are in the business of publishing the news, but they made their money by selling advertising, which gave the end user the expectation that the news itself is either free or nearly free. Double that on the web where almost all the non-pornographic content is free and it became almost impossible for newspapers to profitably make the transition from printed paper to the internet.

I think you'll see many of the best writers and comic artists and some of the most fleet-footed mastheads successfully make the transition over to web journalism, but it will be a painful transition and the newspaper printed on paper itself will be an anachronism in fifteen years. Ironically, I think we'll probably retain the term "newspaper" for text based journalism long after there's no actual paper involved.

This will be painful, and I can't promise that what we'll get will be nearly as good as what we had, but I don't think there's any way to change the path we're on either.

Seth Godin makes an interesting blog entry on what he'll miss about newspapers. He's kind of an asshole about it, but he makes some good points.

Brownie points and kudos if you can name the newspaper writer I ripped off for the title of this article.


Sandi said...

Lewis Grizzard.

Do you think it will take 15 years? There was a story on the wire this week about the tiny little Newton Record shutting down after more than 100 years in print. I thought the little papers would be the last to go (where else are you going to get your weddings, engagements, births, deaths, school news, etc.), but not in this case.

Granted, I don't know how much was the fault of management, or their local economy. But still. I thought the Ledger would go before any of the little papers.

Sandi said...

Or maybe Frank Deford.

A. Boyd C. said...

Ha! I knew I could count on you. Lewis Grizzard it is!

For a while, conventional wisdom was that the small town papers would be the last to go, but lately it seems that they have the least capital resources to fall back on so some of them may be the first. Now, some people are saying weeklys like The Jackson Free Press or the Northside Sun will be the last to go.

For ten years or so I've wondered if there wasn't a way to make a web-only paper for the Jackson area, but so far I haven't been able to come up with a business model for it.

Sandi said...

I read a story last week about a little newspaper in New Jersey that's stayed profitable no matter what's going on in the economy.

The key to their success? They do not have a Web site.

The publisher is old school, and resisted the push to go online. Now, it's paying off ... people are forced to buy the paper if they want their hyper-local news and advertising.

I think I read that in the NYT, but I don't remember. I'll look for the link and send it to you if I find it.