TCS Daily

...Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

By Sidney Goldberg - July 9, 2002 12:00 AM

Are newspapers walking their last mile, doomed to a slow death after a couple of centuries during which they influenced so much of our politics and culture? Many experts, both inside and outside the media, say yes, and even the defenders of the newspapers' future know they will have to fight every inch of the way to retard the decline. Economist Arnold Kling has just written a piece for TechCentralStation (click here to see "The News of My Death...") in which he states, point blank, that "the newspaper business is going to die within the next twenty years."

Kling has all the facts, and I don't quarrel with any of them, and with each year the figures will get worse - less total circulation for dailies and Sundays, fewer newspapers, a readership that every year becomes older than the year before.

And yet newspapers will be very much around twenty years from now. That's because there are two separate words in "newspaper," and the essence of it isn't "paper" but "news." When a young man decides to become a journalist, he doesn't go out and buy an axe to chop down trees so he can manufacture paper. No, what he does is learn how to collect news and report it. The news can be printed on paper, linoleum, plastic, or displayed on a screen.

Today's newspaper is the victim of its technology. The reporter files his story electronically, either on site or from any other location, the story is fed to the computerized press, sorted automatically for the various editions, and then loaded onto trucks that get tied up in traffic jams, destroying all the achievements of the digital newspaper environment.

While the trucks spend their time in gridlock, waiting to deliver yesterday's news. TV, especially cable TV, and the Internet are disseminating news that is just breaking, so that by the time the reader gets his newspaper it's day-old bread. If a story is breaking on Fox or CNN at 3 in the afternoon, who else but a total fool would rush to the corner to buy a newspaper? It's too late!

Aside from the sobering numbers that Kling reports, there are conceptual hurdles that newspapers must confront in their attempts to bring in younger readers. Take comic strips, which are among the most popular features in a newspaper. (So many journalism school graduates who rise through the ranks and become editors are chagrined to learn that it's the comics that attract and keep the readers, more so than the stories on the environment or disarmament.) Nearly all comic strips these days are aimed at adults, not children, but since children are precocious these days, let's look at the real-life situation.

If you had a child who had a choice between reading a comic strip in black & white, with no sound and no action, or a comic strip - or any other feature - on television in color, with full sound and lots of action, and your child preferred the former over the latter, wouldn't you think that child has a problem? As adults, do we prefer silent movies over talkies? Newspapers make enormous efforts - and I certainly applaud them for it - to include a couple of strips or puzzles on the comics page especially aimed at children but it takes an especially attentive parent to bring them to the attention of the child, perhaps clipping them out. "Here, this one's for you, Johnny."

So, yes, the future looks bleak - but only if we assume that newspaper technology has peaked.

The argument given for the survival of newspapers is that, with all the technical advantages of the Internet, the laptop never will replace the newspaper because it can't be read in the "smallest room in the house." I'll never understand why newspaper defenders chose this rather offputting image, rather than, perhaps, stating a bit more felicitously that the laptop can't be read while straphanging in a bus.

But let's stay with this for a moment. In Roman times, all writing was published on scrolls until the second century of the Common Era, when the scrolls were replaced by the codex - the paginated format that we call a "book." The codices won out over the scrolls, obviously, because you can't read a scroll in that "smallest room." It takes two hands to hold the scroll, and that's as far as I want to go down this road. (Thousands of scrolls, incidentally, are still published annually - the Torah - but they are read mainly in synagogues, although many Orthodox Jews copy them on parchment as acts of piety and have their own.)

Meantime, those trucks are still in gridlock. So picture this: Instead of being printed on ordinary newsprint, the news would be delivered electronically to a piece of sensitized paper - say, 8 x 11 or so, and the paper, actually an electronic receiver, would be foldable, so you could stick it in your shirt or pajama pocket when you're finished with it. Or it could be on a comparable piece of plastic that is, in effect, a wireless receiver.

The newspaper would deliver its product to these receiving units electronically. The front page would be the home page on the receiver. You would tap on the story you want to call up in a more readable format - the same way you do now for stories on web sites that you call up. And the stories could be layered and linked to whatever degree the editors choose to carry it. Printouts would be available by a link to a computer. In other words, it would be just as effective as the current laptops, but far more reader-friendly.

The technology to do this is available right now, but there are the inevitable glitches and imperfections, and a huge marketing and investment challenge. If you can bar-code a can of soup to register its price in the cash register, you can code a printed newspaper article to link to a computer, and this indeed was done three or four years ago with a hand-held device that linked the article to a web site for further information - but there were some technical and marketing problems that short-circuited the program. And right now, a couple of dozen newspapers are available in many locations around the world, simultaneously printed out the same time as at their place of origin. Die Zeit, for example, can be printed out in hotels in Hong Kong, New York, and Sao Paulo at exactly the same time it is printed out in Hamburg. Technologically, there would be nothing to prevent it from being updated throughout the day.

What, then, is to distinguish the "newspaper" from the currently available web sites? First, there is local news, which normally trumps national news (which, in turn, normally trumps international news). Newspapers could lose this advantage if they don't act aggressively, expanding their local news coverage so that the door is closed to interlopers. (They failed to do this with city listings and entertainment guides until it was almost too late, but finally are playing catchup, just as they are trying to regain the monopoly they used to have with classified advertising. It won't be easy.)

The other advantage newspapers have is branding. Even if many people in a town never - or rarely - read the local paper, they still know its name and probably have an opinion about it. And so do millions of people who live across the country. If a person were asked to associate a word with a city, he would come up with either the name of the local sports team or the name of the newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, and so on. This is important, competing against the myriad number of web sites on the Internet. The stand-alone web sites don't have the tradition or name recognition that newspapers have built up over the past century and then some. It's why people buy Heinz ketchup or Campbell soup, even when comparable products are cheaper.

Doubters point to the "failure" of the ebook. True, the ebooks during the past five or six years have been unable to undo 450 years of the traditional, beautifully crafted paper codices. Does anyone truly believe that five years are enough to say this is the end of the ebook? That the technology won't develop in ways that make the ebook far more reader-friendly than the bound volume? It goes without saying that ebooks - with the ability to continuously update - will supplant bound volumes in scientific fields, particularly in medicine. Which doesn't mean that physicians still won't buy beautiful paper editions of "Gray's Anatomy" for their libraries. Books, like so many other objects, are bought for many nonfunctional reasons. You don't buy a rare stamp and then stick it on an envelope for postage.

In 1885 the concept of television pixels was elucidated. False starts in television were made in America, Russia, England and elsewhere by the early 1920s, but it wasn't until the 'thirties that the first television transmissions were achieved in any practical way, and the new medium didn't take off until after World War II. Invention and development of communications have speeded up geometrically since then, and there is no question that newspapers - in totally new formats - will be around twenty years from now. There will still be a Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Los Angeles Times.

Sidney Goldberg is a New York media consultant who until February for many years was Senior Vice President of United Media for Syndication. United Media syndicates and licenses Peanuts, Dilbert, and many other graphic and text properties.

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