Once and Future Newspapers 3!

I’ve been writing about the past and future of newspapers, and as if on cue, a couple days ago I spotted this little zine-like handout pinned to a bulletin board outside a record store. (No publisher is identified and I don’t know why one of the articles is circled.) But I take this as serendipity that we should talk about the newspaper’s future.

In Part I of this series told the tale of the newspapers, from centuries-old weeklies issued as just a part of printing businesses, to–through the addition of steam presses, telegraph, and the rise of huge industrial cities–the huge-circulation urban dailies. Then came the long post-war twilight in which newspapers were hollowed out by suburbanization, television, and their own consolidations, but continued to turn a profit by relying more and more on ad revenue.

In Part II the story of newspapers took a turn in the 1990s when they began to lose ground and then in the early 2000s they fell off a cliff. We asked why, questioning the usual suspects–free arts weeklies, the internet, and more consolidation–but tried to get under these, or past these, to examine how politics and professionalism fed readers toward the internet and prevented internal change in direction. Finally, we talked a bit about why websites and daily print newspapers aren’t natural partners.

So local daily newspapers are dying, and aren’t likely to stop dying. Plans to DO SOMETHING, like Ted Gioia’s plan, my hatred of which prompted all this, tend to focus on national websites, which won’t do anything to replace local newspapers. What happens next?

  1. Daily print is dead. First of all, there’s not much future in a daily print newspapers. Distribution in suburban, auto-based environments is extremely cumbersome and expensive and other media (internet, tv, radio) can do the breaking news thing better. Online news sites don’t need a 24-hour framework. They can publish new links and content throughout the day and night as soon as they are created, and readers will log on to read whenever convenient. How much and how often they publish will depend on how much they can. They don’t need to go through the complex decision-making that goes into what to fit into a newspaper and where.
  2. Most dailies will try to go entirely online and fail. A few national newspapers with strong brands based in large, important cities that also have strong brands, can move online–think New York Times and Washington Post–where they’ll become national newsites. Small suburban dailies will try to imitate them, because that’s what ‘professionals’ do, and those with unusually talented design and editorial teams might succeed, but most will fail and go out of business. Daily print and online content are too different, and the gap between aging suburban boomers who want dailies in their driveways and Gen Yers who don’t is too great. The cultural ties to the ‘daily’ concept will make this psychologically harder still for those managing the transition. And, except of a few cities, online products won’t generate the ad revenue to pay for decent writing. Monopolies can’t flip over when they want to and suddenly become innovative, practical, or visionary. Monopolies don’t change direction, as a rule; they die and are replaced.
  3. A few dailies will try to go entirely online and succeed. As I said above a few big city newspapers will make the transitions, and a few suburban dailies with unusually talented design and editorial teams will as well. These will be ‘newpapers’ in name only; what they’ll actually be is news aggregator sites with links to various other sites.
  4. Independent non-profit news organizations will survive in places. One idea is to form non-profit websites as alternatives to newspapers. They’ll publish real journalism, paying for it through donations. This will work to a degree, especially if they mix journalism with the info, gossip, and community building of sites like Next Door, Craigslist, and Zillow, but the investigative journalism is not likely to thrive. (Not that current local newspapers are good at the investigative journalism part anyway.) Non-profit corporations have most of the problems of corporations without even the weak forces of the market as a counterweight. Non-profit news professionals will become intimately tied, professionally, personally, psychologically, to the elites they’d be investigating, and if they don’t kiss the donations goodbye. Take the Texas Monthly. Not a newspaper but it’s an independent liberal magazine in a state that needs liberal voices. Yet it is shutting down. They had a plan to reduce the budget to $1.5 million, which in a state the size of Texas is nothing, but either they couldn’t raise the money or the board of directors wouldn’t keep it going in that diminished state. So it’s toast. Look, depending on unpaid boards and donations can certainly work as long as your product is shiny, new, and connected, but in the long run it’s death.

SIDEBAR. Possibilities #2-4 above depend on the economics of the internet. I’m too ignorant of the internet to prognosticate but on the other hand I’m too ignorant of the internet to believe the hype. So many of the costs are hidden or externalized. The internet itself was created by universities and the pentagon and as we imagine the future of those institutions being smaller and weaker, it’s an open question whether the internet will work like it does now. Here is a long essay on tech sector costs and AI by Paul Kedrosky and Eric Norlin with a handy chart:

One point they make is that often technology does NOT have the declining costs that recent computer tech has invited us to believe in. For a long time storage, CPUs, and bandwidth have been getting both better and cheaper, which is why it is profitable for, say, movies to stream, but will this always be the case? The internet is cheap because (a) it can be and (b) those who own it are letting it be, but both conditions might not last. The internet consists of massive servers and technical dooliwhatzits in giant power-sucking buildings connected over huge land-areas by a patchwork of local, state, and national actors, both public and private. How will all that function in a poorer future of extreme weather, brown-outs, and incompetent clown-show politics of the sort that Sarah Palin and Trump are only the harbingers? Remember that a lot of Americans don’t have cell phone coverage or high speed internet now. Post-imperial America is not going to have the type of internet we have now. I don’t expect the internet to disappear in the next 40 years, but I can’t imagine it existing in anything like its current form in 80 years when demographic, political, and climate change, and vastly increasing energy prices bash it, bake it, and chop it into pieces.

5. A few dailies will become weeklies and succeed. The best route for local dailies not burdened by debt and professionalism is to become printed weeklies. They’d scrap their own distribution and sell for $2 a pop at boxes in public locations, plus mailing costs for subscribers via USPS. They’d feature local print content like reviews, recipes, comics, poetry and essay contests, and public meetings. They would cultivate little to no online presence. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of publishers will take this route. Newspapers owned by chains can’t really devolve into the type of locally-owned product that could pay back debt incurred by their sale, and I can’t see professionals being excited going from being a miniature New York Times to being a glorified Buck Saver.

6. A few free entertainment weeklies take on more reporting. For this they’d have to start charging and it’s hard to get people who are used to a free product to start paying for that product. Maybe they justify this by rebranding, or officially joining in some real or symbolic way with a daily that’s up for sale. This is definitely a possibility and if economics were only about markets and numbers I’m sure it would be the most common outcome. BUT for reasons I’ll go back to below, professionalism is going to put the kibosh on this.

7. New newspapers from the ashes. Can new ‘newspapers’ whether they are called that or not appear again as the originals appeared? Before their ascendancy into mass media status newspapers were small bets made by printers who already had paper, presses, and type. And the print shop itself–which as we saw in Part I was also a bookstore, copy shop, office supply store, and stationary shop–was a great retail space. Adding a weekly newspaper to mix of activities wasn’t that difficult and distribution was easy. Eventually, rising energy costs will drive suburbanites back to cities. Those cities in the US will not be as large as the industrial behmoths of a century ago, due to demographic changes, but they will have the traditional density that makes foot traffic, store fronts, and traditional businesses–like pre-industrial newspapers cost effective. Then newspapers will certainly come back. But in the meantime are there similar loci of activity where something like newspapers can arise? The little paper in the picture above shows that people want to create content. Is there any base of operations where the skills and resources come together so that such a thing can be sustained? Lets look at the various children of the print shop:

  • Copy shops can’t print newspapers on the side because their machines can’t use light weight paper;
  • Printers have little connection to the writing professions;
  • Office supply stores are box retail chains and like copy shops can’t print on light weight paper;
  • Book stores are retail outlets far from the printing presses that create the books.
  • Stationary shops are weirdly the best bet. They often have some kind of printing access, and I would think a stationary shop that sells books too could offer a newspaper, but it’s hard to imagine the people who run stationary shops wanting to go to city council meetings, isn’t it? Not in 2023.

So while wonderful intrepid individuals can put out their own copied or printed ‘newspapers’ such as the Daily Chronicle, the cost of toner and paper added to the cost of any realistic distribution is too high for them to be anything but a labor of love.

In short, the dailies will die, and over the next generation we’ll soldier on reading some national online ‘newspapers’ and local online websites of drastically variable quality, and then in the generation after that weekly newspapers will reappear.

The Curse of Professionalism. One of the reasons the transition is going to be rocky is that the people in charge are professionals, that is middle-class, college-educated people trained to see their professions in particular ways and to socially and culturally identify with other professionals in traditional credentialed activities. And doing it the proper way is part of that self-identity. I said this in Part II, but I’ll repeat it here, such people aren’t trained to figure out what’s popular and promote it. The creative growth of newspapers in their golden age was the willingness of editors and publishers to promote their own writers, illustrators, and investigators. They invented the jobs of comic strip artist, journalist, and reviewer to please readers. Not to achieve objective standards of excellence but to sell newspapers on the street to commuters. That kind of PT Barnum showmanship is the antithesis of professionalism. It’s what professionals are trained to abhor. So until the conservatives blow up the universities (which they will) and the energy costs drive suburbanites (who can afford it) back to cities (which they will), the fundamentals of newspapers will remain awful, and there will not be a leadership class capable of altering those fortunes or helping us all through the chaos ahead.


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