I’m not unrealistic about the fate of newspapers – far from it, I’m certified in Actionscript 2.0 (got to get on 3.0 though) and of course have been doing online comics for years.
But I believe the the current talk about the troubles of newspapers is missing something very important, maybe a few things. Commentators seem to talk about newspapers in trouble and then skip right to the web, and I think those who do that are wrong, and that’s important because if you don’t understand the cause I think you make mistakes about how to deal with the problem.
So here’s my diagnosis:
1) We’re in a recession: Yeah, sure, you know. But what hasn’t set in yet, I think, is just what it means. People don’t know or tend to forget that media in general and newspapers in particular have been canaries in a coal mine for economic downturns. They feel it first and frequently are slower to recover. The recession started in December 2007, and that summer newspaper companies started feeling it. Now you know what it looks like going into a deep, dark recession.
2) Attacks from the left and right. Mainstream media took a hit, some of it justified some of it not. I believe the right attacked mainstream media for political purposes, to turn people away from regular news sources in order to better control how their message is transmitted – propaganda. The left started to turn away from the mainstream during the Clinton impeachment and that exodus increased during the Bush years as national reporting failed to adequately question much of what was happening in the Bush White House. That failure on the national level tainted the local news, as much of it was transmitted over the wires and printed by smaller publications without the means to fact check it. Local news agencies were burned by the their national services.
3) Bad corporate decisions. Whatever happened to making a living? As far as I can see, consolidation has only worked for the phone company, corporate fat cats who get big payoffs for voting for it and the people who earn fees for putting the deals together. After that, it seems everyone else gets screwed. It is unfortunate, but quite a bit of the worst news about newspaper companies is particular to their specific situation.
4) Competition from the internet (as well as other sources). Look at that. Number four! Three other things I feel are far more damaging to newspapers right now than the internet, and yet it seems it’s the first thing people think of.
Why do I put competition so low? Because before the recession, even with Craigslist and other things, newspapers were making healthy profits. And even though the most recent PEW study shows that more people get their news online than from newspapers, they’re getting their news from newspaper organizations via online.
The internet is not causing the downturn in the newspaper industry, the recession is. Competition from the internet will likely influence how well the newspaper industry recovers, but it’s not the cause of the recession. Some cities may be left without a daily newspaper serving them, but hell, we may lose up to 25% of our retail stores in this country. Everyone is hurting.
Again, this is important because you have to recognize the cause of your problem in order to adequately address it.
I can see pulling back from printing stock listings or TV guides – things that are available from multiple sources. But why get rid of original, local content like that created by cartoonists when you should be retraining them to put their stuff online and drive traffic to your website?