Who will actually report and generate the news if newspapers die?

Most news stories are second hand, which can mean one of several things:

  • The story is reprinted from another media or a wire service such as Associated Press.
  • The story is reconfigured using the facts and images from another story, as when TV or radio read a series of 10-15 second stories, all based on a print report.
  • The story is an update of another story.  Some stories go on for weeks or months, such as the war between Russia and Georgia, the personal life of Tiger Woods or the healthcare legislation saga.  In these cases, a very large percentage of the facts conveyed in the story have appeared in other stories by the same media outlet or another.
  • Opinion stories, which typically comment on news that has already been reported.

What the Internet has done has been to increase the number of places that news is available, including the Internet versions of traditional news media; portals like Yahoo! and Google which aggregate but do not report news; and blogs and chat rooms which spout opinions about the news.

The Internet has also led to some additional news origination, as organizations and businesses directly post news releases and new studies that people may (or may not) pick up without first reading about them in the news.  But the impact of the Internet on original dissemination of news is still relatively minor, maybe 5% of all news origination according to a recent study of how news originated in one city, Baltimore, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).  The study found that 50% of all news originated in print media and another 30% in TV.  No surprise there.

It is news origination that is now under severe financial attack because it is the newspaper business that is shrinking, almost melting away like a soaking wet Wicked Witch of the West.

For decades, newspapers lived in a world in which they charged for their information but their competitors, radio and TV, were free to the public.  A greater number of people had TVs and radios than currently own computers with Internet connections.  People who read print media such as newspapers, news magazines and cultural publications such as The New York Review of Books and Harpers always had a greater pool of information and viewpoints than those who depended solely on TV and radio.  The system seemed to work, with the help of libraries to provide free copies of print material.

Despite the fact that newspapers were selling what the competitors were giving away, the newspaper business was highly lucrative, with enormous profit margins compared to supermarkets and car makers.  Towards the end of this golden era, one of the competitors, TV, began to change its model and started charging for its content through cable and satellite.

Enter the Internet, which is not killing newspapers.  Newspapers are killing newspapers with a combination of greed and stupidity.

First the greed: Once it became clear that paid circulation was going to decline, instead of sucking it up and settling for a smaller profit margin, newspapers began to cut writers and pages.  The product declined, which has naturally led to more defections.

Stupid, for ever putting one word on the Internet for free.  In saying that, I know that just yesterday Pew PEJ announced the results of survey that shows overwhelming resistance to paying for online news; 82% say they would look elsewhere if the news site they visited started charging. (By the way, in linking, I had my choice of more than a dozen different newspaper websites that carried this Associated Press story.)

But so what?  Before the Internet, most people did not read newspapers.

The market for newspapers is not and has never been most people.  Instead of giving away the news on their free websites to “most people,” newspapers and wire services should charge people for an online subscription (unless they receive the print edition), jack up the rates they charge the aggregators like Yahoo! and Google, and go after aggregators that don’t pay the going rate (but not after bloggers or scholars who are quoting from or referencing articles).  Another approach might be to assess a fee to Internet Service Providers for providing access to the news for their customers, which pretty much would follow the cable network model of charging cable systems a fee per household per month.

The problem is that for the most part, newspapers produce original news, but they have begun producing substantially less of it because the number of newspapers is shrinking and those still around are shrinking their newsrooms.  For example, PEW PEJ found that the Baltimore Sun now produces 73% fewer stories than it did in 1991 (when it published both a morning and an evening edition). The national edition of my New York Times has sure looked skimpy lately.  Interestingly enough, TV, which is the second leading news originator, is also cutting back on news gathering or creating partnerships with other stations or even newspapers to gather news together.  The result again is less news.

So while we have more places to experience news, there is less news that is getting to us.  Since our brains are like nature and abhor an information vacuum, flying into the void have been entertainment and gossip news, sports, corporate sponsored news, pay-for-play news programming and, of course, the proliferation of fact-starved advocacy-based websites.

If the current situation continues, we are going to slide into a new age of ignorance that will rival Charlemagne’s time for the amount of collective knowledge lost to society and the average person. 

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