Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2008 Issue

Newspapers: Sublimate to Survive

The possibility of a world paper


It varies but is relatively constant. Subscriptions don't pay the bills, advertising does so when paid space declines newspapers become smaller. Classified advertising, that for many papers represented 40% of revenue only a few decades ago, is rapidly declining, victim of Craig's List and other online alternatives that are highly effective and free. To counter this loss, display advertising rates have increased but there are limits to what advertisers will pay and other [print and non-print] competitive alternatives to consider. Worse still, the once committed classified reader increasingly reads them on line in a highly flexible form that stacks results according to reader preferences. Readers not only left for a competitor. They left for a better alternative.

On the news side too newspapers are losing ground. They, once the fastest way to get the complete story, are now often a day behind. Radio and television news deliver thin accounts that the serious do not necessarily take seriously but the Internet has begun to offer complete accounts in very close to real time. Even more, it turns out that though newspapers decided, and readers accepted limitations on what is covered, readers have retained a distinctive personal view of what they want and are now opting for synthetic amalgams of news [shall we call them ipapers?] that combine on the fly news on specific subjects from a variety of sources. It's increasingly possible to follow home town news, your field or industry, your children's Little League team, the weather in several cities you'll visit next week and your stock portfolio, all gathered on a single page in real time. Newspapers can contribute to this but have a difficult time being the primary provider that is almost certainly a search engine.

This leaves newspapers weakened, their loyal audience aging, their core functions increasingly better performed on line by others who employ a financial model based on hits rather than copies, on clicks-through rather than column inches. And so they face very tough decisions. The newspaper model, as they have known it, will fail. It was a model that fit the era and that era now passes away. They have taken the first steps to provide web presences where news, if not advertising, is increasingly effectively delivered. They now face the daunting task of organizing themselves into a worldwide news search, in effect a news version of Google, whereby thousands of newspapers, banding together create an electronic world paper based on subscriptions and or advertising and thereby receive compensation for the indispensable fragment they add to everyone's life: the news.

It should happen. It can. Whether it will only time will tell.

Rare Book Monthly

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