Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Info Will Flow After Newspapers Die

Are you tired of stories regarding the imminent death of newspapers? Yes? Then why are you reading this?

If not, stick with me here.

There's been a lot of noise lately, mainly from folks associated with print journalism, lamenting what will happen to both investigative journalism and local coverage if cites and towns lose their newspapers. As a consumer of both types of information, I can state quite confidently that both will live on, and probably improve. Let me explain why.

I've long read newspapers, and I'm one of the few on my block that still has a daily subscription to the Columbus Dispatch. Do you know how much time I spend every day reading said Dispatch? About ten minutes or so - usually the front page of each section while eating breakfast, and sometimes the editorial section if I'm home for lunch. That's it.

How much time do I spend reading blogs, news sites, and partaking of the various (and entirely too numerous) RSS feeds that come into my aggregator? Two or three hours a day. Yeah. And I'm old - part of the core demographic of newspapers.

Compared to friends and colleagues, I'm more informed and well-versed in most areas. Some are very annoyed by this, but most play along, knowing that I'm a voracious consumer of data. The fact that I'm able to dip my cup into the roaring stream of information that's constantly flowing past whenever I want gives me a leg up on those who rely on print, which is almost always stale by the time it arrives on the doorstep.

I don't frequent online versions of newspapers much, because their content tends to be obsequious. From the New York Times to the Washington Post, even the online version of the Dispatch, the stories are heavily weighted to syndicated content, with very little locally-produced material. I can read stuff from the AP, Reuters, and other news services anywhere.

These same sites also don't refresh their content very often, which is part of the reason why those sites threatening to put their information behind paywalls will wither and die. Successful sites have a large population of return visitors, a direct result of a bond that has formed between the site and the viewer - style, content, some tangible reason. Do you want to know one of the reasons I almost never go to the WaPo site anymore? They break most of their stories into a multiple-page format, requiring me to click "next" or a page number to read more. Is this because it enhances my online viewing pleasure? Umm, no. They do it to increase the number of page views for advertising purposes. They care more about generating revenue from my visit than they do pleasing me.

If I don't visit the site now, for reasons such as that, when the content is free, why in the world would I pay to visit it? It's not like there aren't a thousand other writers that will be opining on the exact same topic, and the news syndicators will still be cranking out their stories.

A gentleman named Jay Rosen has been conducting some research into how much local content is actually prepared by various big-city papers, and his data supports my thesis. He links to some articles penned by others here and here. For example, a Sunday Seattle Times had 7 local stories - the rest was syndicated content. Similarly, a copy of the Chicago Tribune had 8. If local news coverage is going to die, it won't be from falling from a huge perch. More likely, it will get run over by a bus when it rolls off the curb into the street.

Most of the really good investigative journalism of late has been turned in by online-only operations like the Huffington Post or Talking Points Memo, along with TechDirt, Think Progress, and blog sites that link to really robust content from around the world like Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, the Daily Kos,, and Boing Boing. It's a fallacy that newspapers devote significant time and resources to investigative journalism, especially as they've been cutting heads to stem the hemorraging of cash resultant from their terrible business sense.

Like most things, creation and delivery of information is ever-changing, based on customer preferences, technology advances, and money. There are plenty of recent college graduates and people in their 20s who are intelligent, contributing members of society, who also share the distinction of never having had newsprint ink on their fingers. It's just not how they roll, dawg.

Fear not about quality reporting. There will always be smart, motivated people who want to produce it as long as there are those who want to consume it. What won't exist is the huge, costly infrastructure that's currently associated with the news biz. It's not needed. The value is in the information, not the delivery mechanism.

When I can go online and drink from a data hose, why should I pay money to sip from a trickle?

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