Monday, 15 October 2007

The Future of Newspapers?

As I've done every day since I moved to Oxford, yesterday morning I walked my dog, bagged and disposed of his poop, then stopped at the newsagent's to buy a paper.

When I got home, I sat on the couch and started to read it (the newspaper, not the dog). Suddenly, I was overcome by a wave of shame, as I heard the catcalls of smartypants media bloggers:

"Oh. My. God. You're reading a newspaper? That's dead trees, ya know? And, how quaint. You're on a couch! You're sitting on something analog! I bet you're 'drinking coffee' from a 'mug' too! Luddite! I'm suspended in mid-air, sucking argon through a carbon-fiber ventilator while downloading Slashdot directly to my hippocampus! And I'm Twittering."

My vision was the result of the kerfuffle over a recent posting by the Poynter Institute's Roy Peter Clark, in which he suggested that it's the duty of every journalist to buy the newspaper. I don't know Roy Peter Clark, and I'm naturally suspicious of anyone whose moniker consists of three first names, but I'm amazed at the abuse that's being heaped on the guy.

An "Internet troll" says one Steve Yelvington, who opines: "There's nothing wrong with paper. It's your journalism that isn't relevant." Jokes Mark Potts: "Wait, I've Got Another Idea--Let's Have a Bake Sale!" "Wrong-headed" says my friend Craig Stoltz, who recommends journalists steal papers from street boxes to "help destroy the hulking structure" that stands in the way of our bright digital future. Cynthia Brumfield writes "Paper is an inefficient method of delivery and has been supplanted by virtually costless digital distribution." (Guess what: No it isn't and no it hasn't.)

I've been reading these bloggers for a while so I'm accustomed to the spittle-flinging glee they exhibit every time newspapers make a "mistake." The weirdest thing is the bitter tinge to these comments. There's a creepy sort of Oedipal thing going on. They really seem to hate newspapers and the people who create them. Dude, I want to ask, what did a newspaper ever do to you? Beat you up and take your lunch money? Turn you down for a date to the prom?

Here's the reason I think journalists should subscribe to a newspaper: not to "save" the industry or as some noble gesture. If you work at a newspaper you should subscribe to it because it's your god-damned product. If you seriously think it's doomed--if you think spending 35 cents a day contributes to some mass hysteria that afflicts only newspaper publishers, or "enables" editors the way a slice of rum cake enables Owen Wilson--then quit.

If you're embarrassed that your product is produced the same way as the Gutenberg Bible, then go start your Go see if or are hiring. (Go work at the Gap, even. But the minute you start mouthing off about how bricks-and-mortar retail is stoopid I hope you'll have the decency to give your notice there, too.)

Yes I understand that newspapers are in the information business, not the tree-recycling business. I know that circulation is down everywhere. I agree that the World Wide Web might just catch on. But do these hyperventilating bloggers seriously believe that simply because the perfect social media/web cam/citizen journalism/FaceBook-compatible widget hasn't been introduced all editors and publishers are just sitting on their asses waiting to turn off the lights?

No one knows what's going to happen in the future, not even people who know the difference beween RSS and CSS. Actually, I do know what will happen in the future: Tomorrow morning I'm going to walk my dog and buy a newspaper. And I'm not going to feel guilty about it.


suburbancorrespondent said...

That reminds me of Mark Twain (or was it someone else?) - "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Newspapers still seem to be here, thank goodness. It's really hard to read the Washington Post Online at the breakfast table, or on the bus, or at the beach, or on a park bench while I'm watching my kids. And, for some reason, I can sit and read the paper without my children feeling as though I am ignoring them; but if I sit down at that computer monitor, they're all over me in a second.

I agree, though - journalists shouldn't be buying the newspaper simply as a pathetic last-ditch effort to keep their jobs alive; they should be buying it because they like it and feel that it is a viable information vehicle.

Otherwise, the bloggers win.

Mark from Alexandria said...

For some of us, the romance between human and paper will never die. Yeah, Washington Post Online is nice when I'm out of town and I read various UK and other non-locals online, but there is nothing like holding the paper in your hands and turning the pages. I remember when I perfected the New York Times fold...the way the cool New Yorker would read it on the subway or LIRR. Nothing beats that.

And even if its a pathetic last ditch effort to keep your job alive, hey it keeps your job alive!

Anonymous said...

Plus, how else would you know what's on sale at JC Penney's, Pep Boys and Sears all at the same time? You can't find that kind of valuable information on the Internet neslted between all those wordy bits....what do you call them, articles?

yelvington said...

Just to clarify: What I said on my blog is that content, not medium, is the problem. Philip Meyer has charted the readership decline back to 1970, and it's clear that the Internet isn't the cause, nor will it be the solution.

The other comments here reflect a curious lack of awareness of current technology, such as the iPhone and similar portable devices. It's now reasonably possible to have the entire Internet in the palm of your hand at all times. I can, for example, check the Best Buy, Staples and CompUSA Sunday inserts on my Nokia N800 through their websites while sitting in the parking lot at the mall.

The real question is: Can the newspapers compete for your interest in a fully networked world? From what I see, neither the content nor the organizational metaphor of the newspaper is keeping up.

Anonymous said...

I was just wondering when we will see a picture of you on your blog in that smart shirt you were wearing at the University Club yesterday?

-a Ringo fan

Anonymous said...

Hi John, I am loving your blog. Sure do miss your col-yume (as Levey would say) in the Post, but this is the next best thing.

Like other commenters here have said, there's just nothing like reading a real newspaper. I can't and won't give it up. So there, smarty-pants media bloggers! ;-)

A reader in NoVA

Erin said...

I think the naysayers will be proved wrong and newspapers will survive. I'm 21 years old and I still subscribe to a daily paper. There's just something wonderful about holding the paper in your hands, smelling it, and being able to sit and enjoy the paper at your leisure. It's not as relaxing sitting in front of a computer and scrolling through stories.

Glenda Cooper said...

Curiously I find I read newspapers in different ways. The Guardian has got such a fantastic website that I almost wholly read it online now; whereas I always read the Daily Mail in paper form. Hmmm. what does this make me I wonder?

AEZ said...

Yeah, John, but we newspaper people shouldn't have a thermos bottle over our shoulders either -something IS actually going on that IS changing our profession. And we need to get ready. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here at Oxford studying what you're studying and you wouldn't have a blog, HAHAHAHA!!!

Please say "Hola" to Carlitos, would you?

Shashi Bellamkonda said...


The Internet is moving more towards aggregation and customization. The newspapers have been doing this for years - Giving you a digest of news of different types. I can see the future - Doctor's recommending you read a newspaper so you get away from the computer screen and save your eyes and walking to your driveway is all the exercise you may get.

feckless man said...

What is the "organizational metaphor" of a newspaper? I think I like the metaphor of being able to leisurely flip through circulars while sipping coffee on the comfy couch rather than downloading from a store's web site while sitting in the parking lot of the mall.

John Kelly said...

Thanks for the comments. I was at a lecture last night by the head of the Oxford Internet Institute, who argued that the Internet represents the "Fifth Estate." It is not simply a new way to deliver content, but a different beast altogether. I agree with Yelvington that newspapers can't simply port their content over, but I disagree that the model is as broken as he thinks it is. And what I was objecting to in my post was the vitriolic disdain many bloggers seem to have for newspapers, as if they were evil.

There may come a day when we can't read a paper over our morning coffee. I don't think it will happen in my lifetime. Society will survive.

It is a nice polka-dotted shirt, isn't it? Ruth made it. I'd marry her all over again.

And Shashi, I like your idea: Market the newspaper as a "wellness" product. I've often suggested if The Post wants to stop losing readers, it should just try to keep the ones it has alive longer.

Anonymous said...

When you come back from Oxford, you should travel through smaller cities and small towns in the country and study their newspapers. Our local paper consists of approximately 20 standard pages and a 16-page tabloid containing comics, TV listings, a few lifestyle columnists, and one article, usually taken from a service. The front page is a shortened version of articles found inside the paper, the TV listings are made up two or three weeks in advance and are frequently inaccurate, and any article about a product recall gives a brief summary of the problem and a Web site to check to find out what specific items are recalled and what to do with them. And it costs 50 cents on weekdays.

If newspapers went to retain readers, try giving them something to read.

Laura said...

I can't curl up with my laptop.
Don't want to.
Gotta have the paper.