A little more than thirty years ago, I stood in the Circulation Room of the newspaper I was working for at the time. There was a retirement party for one of the managers of the department and we had gathered to say goodbye. Naturally enough, conversation turned to the state of newspapers and their future. At the time, USAToday had just hit the streets and was making a big splash.
“You’re getting out of the business at just the right time,” one of the executives said to the retiree. “USAToday is going to put everyone out of business.”
Another executive shook his head.
“Well, newspapers are a thing of the past anyway,” he lamented. “People don’t want to take the time to read anymore. They want to sit in front of the TV or radio and have someone tell them the news. We’re a dinosaur.”
“I don’t think newspapers are dead. I just think we’re going to have to reinvent ourselves. We’re going to had to adapt.”
I went on to explain that different news media served different purposes and fit into different niches. Electronic media served immediacy; you could get the headlines and gist of the stories quickly, filtering them so that you could look more deeply into those stories you wanted to learn about. Then you could go to the newspaper and get a more in-depth story and follow it more closely, if you wished. Finally, if you were really involved in the story, you could delve even more deeply into the story by picking up one of the news magazines such as Newsweek or Time.
All during this explanation, the older, wiser, more experienced professionals not-too-patiently stood by, sipping their punch and shaking their heads. I was young – mid-twenties young – and, even though I came from a newspaper family, I had no college (at the time) and no practical experience. The words that came from my mouth were the prattling of youthful ignorance.
Neither USAToday nor television nor radio killed newspapers. They still hung around and were still read by millions of people.
Of course, at that time, there was no Internet and the term “online” usually meant that a machine was plugged in and turned on.
I listen now to those who say newspapers are dead and that we will no longer have the printed media – at least not in physical form – to bring us our daily ration of information. Now, most people – so the surveys say – get their news from either the Internet or from one of the comedy shows that concentrate on headline jokes. Why should someone go to all the trouble of picking up a collection of papers, getting stained by impermanent ink in the process, and carrying it around when all they really have to do is take out their spiffy new phone and fingering an “app” to receive all the news they want? Newspapers serve no purpose in the electronic age of “connectivity.”
Again, I disagree.
A while back, I was listening to a program on the media – that is, in fact the name of the show “On The Media” – and the host of the show was talking to one of the many experts who spend their time evaluating the state of news media and pontificating on it. The subject was, of course, the crisis in print media and the closing of one of the giants of the old news establishment, the Rocky Mountain News.
Aside: This event was, in fact, a bit of a tragedy to me. I had a very good friend who wrote for the RMN several years ago, when it was one of the most well-respected papers in the country, and it was the journalistic home of one of my favorite writers, Damon Runyon – a writer I still highly recommend if you want to take a short trip back in time to 1920s Broadway, or simply want to take a verbal LSD trip. Read him and you’ll see what I mean. Now, back to the real point.
The expert on the program was talking about why so many papers were folding or going to online editions only. He had a somewhat novel explanation for their failure.
“The problem isn’t that newspapers aren’t making money – they are. The problem is that they aren’t making the amount of money the owners want them to make,” he said.