This just in: No newspaper at all
More American newspapers appear to be accelerating toward demise. For anyone who’s been paying attention to the industry, it’s been clear at least since last fall that 2009 would be a year of considerable destruction. Take the spreading flame of digital technology, pour on a vicious economic downturn and quickly you have a raging forest fire. In the New York Times today Richard Pérez-Peña reports on which U.S. cities soon might not have a major daily print paper at all. Perhaps it’ll be Seattle or Denver. Or maybe San Francisco. Just a short while ago the prospect would’ve been inconceivable.
I like the forest fire metaphor here because it suggests an essential part of the picture that in many quarters still isn’t getting its proper due: The fertile rebirth that follows the destruction. I’ve been surprised to see a degree of pessimism even from some who’ve already been toiling on the frontier:
“It would be a terrible thing for any city for the dominant paper to go under, because that’s who does the bulk of the serious reporting,” says Joel Kramer, the editor and CEO of Minneapolis-based MinnPost.com, in the Times today. (Kramer was formerly editor and publisher of The Star Tribune.) “Places like us would spring up, but they wouldn’t be nearly as big. We can tweak the papers and compete with them, but we can’t replace them.”
Really? There’s a tendency to equate the withering of the old medium (newsprint) with the demise of what it has delivered (news reporting). But increasingly it’s going to be delivered digitally. If the old media companies don’t do it, others will, because the demand (and therefore market) for it is undeniable. Sooner than we probably realize, we’re all going to be walking around carrying some kind of digital newspaper in our hands. Organizations will arise and mobilize to provide the reporting in it. And people will pay for it. (Businesses are also likely to advertise around it.)
Indeed, formidable challenges remain to working out viable business models. But the field is increasingly wide open and waiting to be seeded. (New tracts soon available!—see above.) You can look at the crisis as a tragedy, or you can look at it as an opportunity.
As Pérez-Peña notes, the Washington Post had a newsroom of more than 900 people six years ago, with fewer than 700 now. The LA Times newsroom is half the size it was in the 1990s, with a staff of about 600 today.
Call me crazy, but that’s still an awful lot of resources with which to gather and produce stories. Without the major printing and distribution costs of their antique brethren, digital ventures still will probably need to be considerably smaller and more nimble to succeed. (In the near-term economy, at least.) Even if some early experiments haven’t been so impressive, my sense is that those who survive and thrive will do so especially via robust local and regional reporting, fast dwindling in many places now. (Apparently the LA Times has some other strategy in mind.)
Self-described “newsosaur” Alan Mutter offers some intriguing advice for those who reportedly may launch the first digital-only newspaper in a major U.S. city, from the ashes of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Be different” and “cop an attitude,” he suggests. “Think of the site as more of a blog than a newspaper.”
Hmm, it seems there’s no shortage of that to go around… but I like his closing thoughts: “The work you do will play a major role in helping to define the future – and the future economics – of local news coverage. Take risks, try everything and have fun. Whatever you do, don’t look back.”