Unbundling The Newspaper Could Be A Good Thing
from the future-of-news dept
A lot of the discussion at the Future of News conference has focused on the supposedly dire consequences of the newspaper's decline. Newspaper readership is falling, and advertising revenues are dropping even faster. A lot of people here (especially folks who work at newspapers) seem to think that newspapers fill a unique niche that will go unfilled if increased competition from the Internet causes newspapers to go out of business. One of the people on the second panel, Eric Alterman, wrote an article for the New Yorker recently making the same argument. He thinks that bloggers have a "parasitic relationship" with the mainstream media, perhaps exemplified by me linking to a New Yorker article as the jumping off point for this post!
What I think this misses is that the current structure of the newspaper industry may not make a lot of sense in the Internet age. Today, every newspaper has its own stable of movie critics, book reviewers, sports reporters, and coverage of science, technology, medicine, foreign affairs, and other topics. This arrangement was largely dictated by the limitations of 20th-century distribution technologies; in the 20th century, there were economies of scale to delivering news, and so it made sense to put all of the day's news into one big bundle and deliver it to everyone's door.
Thanks to the Internet, the web, and technologies like RSS, there's no longer any reason for everyone to get the same bundle of news, and there's certainly no reason to think that everyone will want to get all their news from the same metropolitan area. There's no particular reason that I should get my movie reviews or technology coverage from my local paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, rather than specialized publications based elsewhere that cover these topics in great depth. People can assemble their own bundle of news by picking and choosing among the thousands of publications online. And for those who don't have the time or the knowledge to do that, there are going to be plenty of aggregators that offer a comprehensive summary of the day's news syndicated from a bunch of different sources.
Treating the metropolitan newspaper as a bellwether for news gathering as a whole is misguided. Newspapers are declining not because there's no market for good content, but because the 20th-century newspaper probably isn't the best model for organizing the enterprise of news gathering. There's a ton of good content on the Internet that doesn't come from mainstream media outlets, and there's every reason to expect that a lot more will be created as the online audience continues to grow. But the new outlets aren't newspapers, and there's no reason to expect them to have the comprehensive ambitions or monolithic structure of newspapers. People looking for a single institution that will take the place of the newspaper are likely to be disappointed. Rather, the newspaper is likely to be replaced by a swarm of smaller, nimbler and more specialized news outlets, combined with aggregation tools that help people assemble their own bundles of news from these myriad sources.