An NPR piece* the other morning about the future of newspapers got it wrong. The contributor, a nostalgic newspaperman, was mourning the apparently imminent demise of the medium, retelling his young son's reaction to the latest round of newsroom layoffs. "Why are you surprised, dad," he asked, "Why would I read a newspaper when I can find something on the internet, on Google, on blogs, or in a newspaper online?" So sad, the contributer noted, with this new generation will come the end of the newspaper.
The mistake here matters much because it's one the newspapers themselves are making, the very one that actually threatens their future.
The commentator's son, the commentator, and the newspaper establishment, have conflated the concepts of what a newspaper does, and what a newspaper is. And unlike Jack Sparrow, I'm more interested in the "does" part.
Let's handle "is" first, though. I think that sales (and production) of hard copy newspapers will absolutely plummet in the next five or ten years. I don't know anyone my age who prefers leafing through enormous pieces of dirty paper to try to find the end of that front page article, rather than clicking "Next." And how do you even read the New York Times without the "most emailed" box? That's the first place I go after I read what's above the fold ("above the scroll?"). The only advantage of the printed paper is that you can do the crossword properly. But after reading maybe a third of the articles, if you're being generous, you throw the whole pile of paper away--!! Unacceptable to our green (pun intended) minds. I think many of us will enjoy newspapers in the future the way we enjoy quality, old-school throwback items now. "Oh wow, a record player! Remember those? Let's hook that thing up and find some of my parents' LPs."
For a while there will still be printed papers in corporate lobbies and in the subway and on the steps of staid suburban homes. But yes, Mr. Newspaper Man, this is going away. It's just more convenient to read it all on the iPhone. (Even the newspaperman's son said he was still reading newspapers online!)
Thus, onto what a newspaper does.
A newspaper finds, reports (mostly in writing), and selects the day's news for us, under a particular brand. This, I argue, needs not go away. We actually need it now more than ever.
But by clinging to the hard copy culture of the newspaper--and even though the paper is available online--newspapers as a whole (not just hard copy) risk becoming obsolete in the next decade.
My morning and lunchtime routine consists of checking my personal email, reading the blogs that feed into my Google Reader, and checking out a few articles on the Times. More and more I feel a little impatient with the NYT. Why couldn't it just RSS feed its leading article so I don't have to go to a whole new site to get my branded, edited news?** Bah.***
Okay, okay, so the NYT is catching on. They have blogs. Some good ones, at that. Some, not so good. I've criticized the editorial board's attempts before. Here's why it matters. Blogs can't be the NYT's ancillary material. They need to be its new format.
Every column, every article, every space ("front page," "above the fold," "center column," "Friedman," "Dowd," "Friedman and Brooks, and also Collins but only if it's been posted in the last two hours OR is in the top ten most emailed"), needs to be feedable. I need to be able to choose which feeds I want. I want to be able to get "all the news that's fit to click" without ever going to the NYT's home page.
"All"? But I thought you just said I'd be choosing which feeds I want. So if I only want sports feeds, I'll miss the front-page headline, right?
Well, this is where the "select" part of a newspaper's job comes in.
I have too many feeds coming into my reader as is. If I'm going to be having all of these newspaper feeds in there too, I need someone to pick and choose them for me--still based on my preferences ("Friedman and Brooks"), but with some common human sense thrown in about other stuff I might be interested in and other stuff I should be interested in.
Tah dah! Isn't that in some sense what a newspaper does already? Prove your worth, editors, by editing. Send me, say, five articles a day that you think I should be reading, but that I haven't signed up for. So I can get the top travel story even though I haven't signed up for the travel feed (so that I don't get ALL the travel articles EVERY day), if you think it's worthy. Please do this! I need you to.
This way, the top stories get fed to everyone, regardless of their usual individual preferences, but all the niche audiences still get their niche stories fed to them too. And if you get really procrastinatory on a Friday afternoon at work, there's always more on the site, because then you actually feel like going there. Isn't that sort of the way a newspaper works now, in an analog version?--usually we only read top stories and maybe drill down to some things that interest us individually, and then only read the rest when we have time? Only now it comes to me, I don't have to go to it.
Anyway, this is only one vision of what newspapers could do to not just stay in the game, but to keep owning the game. They need to come up with new ways of getting us their content (the "most emailed" box is a great example of a great success). Their newsrooms, companies, and brands don't need to fall away; they could become stronger. Newspapers aren't dead, my friends. Despite their soon-to-be-archaic name, if they figure out and own this technology shift, they're only just beginning.
* Which I now can't find, hence no link and no way of checking if I remembered the piece accurately--sorry.
** Probably something to do with advertising dollars, which makes sense. You can't see the ads on a feed. But Reader's brilliant new gizmo for your links bar obviates that problem. You just click the link on your browser toolbar and it takes you through your blog posts one by one, at the blog's site--so you see it just as the blogger set it up, ads and all. It could stand to be perfected--for now you can only hit "next" and it would be nice to be able to pick and choose from amongst your unread posts, but it'll get there.
*** Call my generation lazy. I call us obsessed with efficiency.