Newspapers therefore become more necessary in proportion as men become more equal and individualism more to be feared. To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization. I shall not deny that in democratic countries newspapers frequently lead the citizens to launch together into very ill-digested schemes; but if there were no newspapers there would be no common activity. The evil which they produce is therefore much less than that which they cure.
Alexis de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America (Published in 1835)
I love reading print newspapers. I like to pick up a copy and take it to a coffee shop, then peruse the articles slowly. I like the articles but I also like to see the selection and placement that shows the hand of the editors. This tells me something about both sides of the relationship between the publisher and the readership. But if I find an article I want to do more with, say share it with a friend or research alternate sources, I track down the digital version.
Someday the print version will probably disappear, the difference between the optimist and pessimist is a question of when. The discussion about how to save print, or newspapers, or journalism itself, has been going on since the Internet came of age. Several important thinkers have taken up the discussion again, recently. A somewhat optimistic starting point is Margaret Sullivan’s column in the New York Times, on March 21st of this year. She explains that over a millions subscribers buy the NYT print edition every Sunday, and that over 70% of total NYT revenue comes from print. She quotes a couple authorities, who see that print will probably decline somewhere between 10 years and 40 years from now.
A somewhat more worried analysis comes from the Washington Post Executive Editor, Martin Baron. He gave the 2015 Hays Press-Enterprise lecture, and talked about the necessary transition from print to digital for journalism. The speech is insightful, and describes how the advent of the Internet has made journalism, in some ways, far more powerful. He also points out the speed at which things are changing, and describes the change to digital as inevitable, and something that newspapers have to embrace rather than fight.
Ultimately Baron’s speech, though pessimistic about print as a means of distribution, is very optimistic about the newspaper as the primary organizational home for journalism. Given his role, it makes sense for him to feel this way. But there are other points of view.
A good starting point for a more pessimistic point of view about newspapers as a whole is Margaret Sullivan’s follow-up column to the one above, published just three weeks later. The reason for her change of tone is that another important thinker, Clay Shirky, contacted her with some observations on her column.
Shirky predicts that the decline in print production won’t be a slow decay, but that there will be certain fast drop-off points as advertisers see their returns and reach shrink beyond some tolerable level. He gives a lot of very solid reasons, and some suggestions as to how newspaper organizations can try to manage the change.
But Sullivan also links back to a post by Shirky from 2009, in which he clarifies that the problem is not just digital versus analog, it’s that the newspaper, as an organization, can’t reproduce itself as a digital organization.
the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.
Shirky points out that newspapers were an answer to a specific economic condition, one that no longer exists:
If you want to know why newspapers are in such trouble, the most salient fact is this: Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run.
Then he makes what I think is his most important point:
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.
Some people think the two are the same, but a good counter-point comes from Henry Blodget. He doesn’t just think journalism will survive, he believes it is now entering a new golden age.
A newspaper, traditionally, is a package deal. You get the stories you want along with all the ones you don’t. In the same package you get a host of ads, along with a specific ad type known as the classified ad. Now we have Craigslist, and we consume news bits from multiple sources.
If a particular newspaper can become something else, say a publisher of digital content tailored to the interests of a variety of different audiences, if will probably find a place in the new economy. But as a single daily product, rigidly structured and ordered by editors, it will continue to walk off the stage.
More reading (and watching):
Signup below to receive updates about what we are up to.