Should Newspapers Really be Saved?

Some months ago I was invited (about a dozen times) to join the "Don’t Let Newspapers Die" cause on Facebook. Most of the well-meaning folks who invited me to the cause were, in fact, people in the newspaper industry with whom I have worked for many, many years. As a nearly 20-year veteran of the business, I can forgive my Facebook friends for assuming that I would be interested in preserving the newspaper industry as it exists today, and as it has existed for the bulk of my career.

It was with a not-so-heavy heart that I silently ignored the pleas for my participation in this particular cause.

Why? Because information gathering and reporting, like any other human industry, must be allowed to change and evolve with the technologies and the demands of the times.

We no longer live in an era when the common man, he who puts his nose to the grindstone every day just to feed his family, is restricted to digesting a filtered, dumbed-down hashing of the day’s events with his breakfast bagel or his evening meal. News delivery today is consumer-participatory. We read it, we digest it, we "tweet" it, and we do not necessarily glean what we regurgitate from traditional sources.

The print newspaper business must evolve if it is to remain a viable information utility. To date, it has been the slowest overall of the more traditional news reporting sources to successfully leverage the Internet in the daily lives of news junkies. Granted, it’s had more to overcome. Flipping on the television or radio and sponging the news in spoken or visual form is still easier than putting it together yourself from various blogs, feeds, and editorial content online, even with technologies like RSS and social media sites.

Let’s look at it this way: no one hires a scribe to manually copy, translate, and distribute documents anymore. Why? Because Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type printing and the printing press. Even as far back as the 1400s, technology was changing the way news was delivered.

And then there were newsboys, who are famous in American history for shouting headlines on street corners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to sell papers. Word-of-mouth, in fact, was one way newspapers managed to attract readers and subscribers throughout the ages. "Did you read that story in the…?" was most often the phrase that led to more eyeballs on a particular column.

These days, there’s nary a newsboy to be found and no one uses movable type printing anymore. Why? Because we have desktop publishing applications that make it simple to put words on a page, and we have television, radio, blogs, advertising, social media, and a host of other means of spreading word-of-mouth.

Now fast-forward to 1997, when Matt Drudge "revolutionized" online newsgathering by becoming one of the first aggregated news sites on the Web to both make news and break major political scandal. Suddenly, people were turning to the Internet in droves to read news from sources that were not ABC, NBC, CBS, New York Times, or Wall Street Journal. What Drudge did was successfully break a Newsweek work-in-progress on the Internet. Although it wasn’t Drudge who uncovered the story, his action on it was the very beginning of what would become the medium accused of destroying the newspaper.

For years, I’ve heard that craigslist is killing print media because of free online classifieds, and that bloggers are killing print media because they have become the new, true "community" journalists, that they are performing original local reporting rather than just spilling something from the Associated Press into an empty hole every day.

In the end, though, it is up to the newspaper to maintain (and build) its readership, and not up to craiglist, bloggers, twitterers, or whatever the next generation of newsgatherer becomes, to protect the old gray print media from wasting away to nothing.

Should traditional print media go the way of the dinosaur? Absolutely. It should evolve.