Let the newspapers die

There’s no shortage of ideas for how the newspaper industry might save itself – by adopting new business models, distribution strategies, etc. The other day, my friend Ben suggested a new twist on subscriptions that would work something like cable television. Others hint that newspapers should push for mass adoption of the Kindle. Still others believe it might make sense to run newspapers as charitable trusts, and organize periodic pledge drives – like NPR.

In these strange and stressful times, people across the political spectrum seem resigned to the likely demise of some major banks and possibly the whole U.S. auto industry. Even my most liberal friends seem almost eager to see GM and Chrysler bite the big one. Yet they’re unwilling to accept a similar fate for the New York Times.

They may not have a choice of course. Michael Hirschorn suggested in the Atlantic Monthly that the Times could disappear by this summer (prompting this response from the Times).

I more or less share my friends’ sentiment. I’m an avid reader of the New York Times (online edition), and I’d miss it. On the other hand, I’ve never owned an American car, so I feel somewhat indifferent to the possibility of their extinction. In my mind, American car companies have made one bad business decision after another, failing to adequately respond to major shifts in the market. On top of that, their product actually harms the planet.

But is the newspaper industry really so different? Newspapers have made plenty of bad business decisions, and they haven’t adequately responded to major shifts in the market. Plus, ink, paper and all the driving involved in distribution take their own toll on the planet.

But the bigger question is, why do we need newspapers? And I’m not just talking about the physical offline versions. I mean why do we need the New York Times at all? Who needs their classifieds when you have Craigslist, Ebay, Amazon, Facebook, etc.? And there are plenty of other – and better – places to keep up on sports, finance, travel, food and entertainment.

That leaves general news of the nation and the world. Again though, would we really miss what the major newspapers provide? We shouldn’t equate newspapers with journalism.

After all, the major newspapers dropped the ball with respect to the current financial crisis. In hindsight, there are all kinds of questions they should have been asking. The alternative press and bloggers were arguably doing better at what the fourth estate is supposed to do, but the very existence of the newspapers casts a pretty long shadow over these guys.

The major newspapers failed during the Vietnam War to report on things like illegal bombing campaigns and widespread atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers, although there was ample evidence and no shortage of credible sources willing to come forward without anonymity. Again, the alternative press were the only ones willing to write about these things until the war was basically over and the tide of public opinion had completely shifted.

The major newspapers failed during the run-up to the Iraq war to question the motives or tactics of the Bush administration. And they neglected through the first four or five years of his presidency to adequately scrutinize anything his administration did – from suspensions of civil liberties and habeas corpus to rampant corruption and deceit.

The major newspapers failed for many years to lay out the straightforward scoop on climate change, opting instead for a misguided even-handedness. The perception of impartiality was more important to them than the truth.

In so many important cases, the major newspapers put their bottom line ahead of journalistic principles, unwilling to report anything that ran against the public opinion of the moment. This is why nine out of the ten most emailed New York Times articles on any given day are op-ed pieces. This is the most trustworthy section of the Times because it’s the most uncorruptable, the least subject to compromise.

In my view, the only newspapers that don’t have an obvious replacement are the small-town ones. Without small-town papers, where will people find out about the latest zoning ordinances and high-school wrestling results? But the potential demise of local news sources isn’t a tragedy. It’s a business opportunity. The Internet still needs to get a lot more local. And it will.

It’s OK to let the newspapers die.

One Reply to “Let the newspapers die”

  1. In general journalism is a lot like many other professions that are a lot less unique and valuable with the interweb than without it, and I am good with the transition (and the painful but necessary sucking-out-of money). And certainly there is nothing sacred about how journalism has been practiced; it’s a business like anything else. But the present circumstances are not like the car companies or banks, where the products are not selling because no one wants them; the journalism being produced today is extremely popular and the basis for a lot of the other content as commentary on the web. The fact that the web has no business model to pay for this content is a distorted situation; once the papers are dead (and all the local papers too, that’s for sure), people will eventually make new cheaper sites and publications to fill the void. In the mean time, much of the existing expertise and knowledge about how to gather and publish the same news that is immensely popular will be discarded, and that will be our loss.

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