Requiem for Newspapers

June 2009

There is a certain amount of gratification knowing that I accurately predicted the death of print. But also sadness. I love newspapers, and newspapers are dying.

The casualties in recent months include the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and several dailies in Michigan. In some cases, as in Seattle, there were two daily papers, so one will still be left. But in other cases, a city’s sole newspaper is biting the dust. At least 120 newspapers have folded since January 2008, thanks to the competition of the Internet (both audience and advertising dollars) and the recession.

I first had a glimmering about 1965 and said to my mother that it seemed like a newspaper was wasteful — all that work to print and distribute, only to be quickly discarded. I imagined a system whereby text would be transported to a medium in the home. My mother was skeptical, but to me it seemed inevitable.

In 1994 I began using Mosaic, the first graphical web browser. And I thought, “This is it. This is going to be the technology that replaces paper.” Mind you, this was when there was little content on the web, and everything was primitive by today’s standards. No Amazon, no Microsoft Internet Explorer, no Google. Just a few thousand web pages put up by academics and hobbyists.

My first column about the Internet in December 1994 was titled, “Goodbye Print, Hello Mosaic.” I described this new phenomenon and imagined it being a major force. And now, a few billion web pages later, the tide has turned. Print is fast dying.

When it was the future, I felt bullish, but now that it’s happening I have mixed feelings. Consider Jacqueline in Ann Arbor. She’s 82 and has been avidly reading the Ann Arbor News for decades.

In July the paper will be no longer be a daily, coming out just twice a week. Jacqueline has resisted new technology, assuming she would always be able to get by as she had been. “It’s too hard to learn these new gadgets,” she said. “I’d never be able to do it.”

But now she faces a choice: get a computer or no longer have access to daily news. Her attitude has changed completely: “I’ve got to have the news, it’s time to get a computer.” Fortunately, she has a daughter and son-in-law who are buying her the simplest computer they can find, with a touch screen and outfitted with a service called BigScreenLive that greatly simplifies the interface, just presenting a few basic things.

Not every person, though, will have someone to look to her or his needs, and many will have an empty spot in their lives.

Environmentally, it may be a good thing. One compelling tidbit that I put in that 1994 column was this: a single issue of Time magazine requires harvesting 16,000 trees. Imagine all that goes into harvesting those trees, transporting them, making paper from them, and then printing and transporting the magazine.

Of course, one worry is that the demise of a newspaper entails the demise of reportage. But in most cases, these newspapers (and magazines, too) are morphing to the web. The Seattle P-I let go its entire staff and then invited them to submit applications for the new web-based company, which would be much smaller.

The libertarians among us, and I’m not sure I’m among them, see this as the democratization of news. Too few media outlets have exerted too much control. With the web you have a proliferation of sources, including blogs, twitters, forums, Web 2.0 citizen journalism, and more. In a sense, there’s been an explosion of news, and of views and voices. Some see cacophony, others salvation.

The Huffington Post has become a model for this new kind of journalism. It has five paid writers who do original reporting, over 20 additional editorial employees, a stable of volunteer commentators, and some 3,000 volunteer bloggers (and tens of thousands of quibblers who write nasty comments in response to the material posted). It’s become a major news hub, and some dying newspapers will try to emulate it, as has the Seattle P-I.

Also on the horizon are big-screen e-readers. You’ll subscribe to a newspaper that’s delivered to a thin, lightweight screen the size of a sheet of paper that uses the same E Ink technology as Amazon’s Kindle.

I revere the standards of journalism and respect newspapers. And it’s my fond hope that journalism will weather this transformation from print to web — and thrive.

© 2009 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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