Not Dead Yet

By Max Fawcett | March 23, 2009

By most accounts, the printed newspaper is set to join the North American automobile industry as a prominent cultural dinosaur, a casualty of the economic realities of the 21st century. The recent demise of the Pulitzer Prize winning Rocky Mountain News in the United States and the printed version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has triggered a torrent of articles about the future of the newspaper, and whether it even has one. Some have even argued that newspapers, like an increasing number of banks in the United States, should be nationalized and supported with public dollars. But this panic isn’t warranted, because while neither government bailout nor billions of dollars of economic stimulus appears capable of saving the North American automobile industry from extinction, the newspaper’s future looks brighter than it has in years. After all, the newspaper isn’t dying. It’s being born again.

For readers, there’s nothing particularly spiritual about this rebirth, but for those with a financial stake in the business it may turn out to be a miracle, if they consider saving millions of dollars a religious experience. Right now, the idea of newspapers turning a profit might seem more far-fetched than some of the passages in the Old Testament, but therein lies the catch. Because of their disastrous balance sheets and the culprit behind them, the internet, they will soon be liberated – against their will, perhaps – from the costs of printing and paper. Newspapers will, in a sense, be saved by their own stupidity.

What could replace the thousands of dead trees that have are sacrificed each day in order to produce a product that expires more quickly than a bowl of potato salad on a July afternoon in Toronto? Technology, of course. As Fortune Magazine’s Michael Copeland wrote in a recent feature, we may soon have another gadget to add to our ever-growing collection of Blackberries, iPods, and cell-phones. “These are handheld gadgets akin to Amazon’s Kindle or the Sony Reader,” he writes, “that use electronic “ink” rendered on a crisp screen to deliver an experience that approximates reading on paper – without the cost of paper, printing, and delivery.”

Ink-on-paper newspaper aficionados like to extol the joy of the morning paper, but its most likely replacement has its own virtues. Imagine waking up in the morning, reaching over to your bedside table, turning on your dedicated newspaper and magazine reader, and finding your morning papers already downloaded and ready to read, with supporting audio and video built into the stories. You can read your papers, search for keywords or subjects that interest you, comment on or forward any interesting articles you might find in them, and save the rest for later, all without having to trudge downstairs and rifle through your morning’s share of a dead tree. Nostalgia’s a powerful force, but I don’t think people will mourn the printed newspaper for very long. We don’t miss going to the library and pouring through dusty old encyclopedias, after all.

This transformation won’t be without casualties. In the short term, newspapers, like any other businesses that doesn’t trade in liquour, pornography, payday loans, or other recession-proof commodities, are going to have to cut back if they’re to survive in the suddenly harsh global economic climate. At the newspaper I edit in Northern British Columbia, we’ve had to downsize our office space, cancel fringe benefits like company cell phones and automobile allowances, and there is still more cutting back to be done in the near future. Those that refuse to come to terms with the fact that the old way of doing business no longer works will pay a heavy price for their stubbornness.

Yet while newspapers are in for some short-term pain, that pain will finally push the industry into the full and lasting embrace of the internet that it has so stubbornly, and stupidly, resisted. The balance sheets of newspapers, freed from the shackles of the printing press, may begin to show signs of life, and while there will surely be some who will mourn the loss of the morning newspaper on their doorstep there will be millions more quietly celebrating its end.

There are many within the newspaper industry who worry that by switching from paper to pixels newspapers will lose their greatest advantage over the thousands of bloggers, pamphleteers, and other self-appointed experts on the internet. But such worries do a great disservice to the work done by professional journalists. Readers turn to them for the coverage they provide and the clarity they can bring to complicated issues, not because those perspectives are printed on dead trees.

In a digital world defined by a cacophonous chorus of disparate voices and viewpoints, the harmony that professional journalists can bring to the provision and presentation of news will be a more valuable commodity than ever before. As American journalist and blogger Clay Shirky writes, “society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” Or, to twist Marshall McLuhan’s famous words a bit, newspapers are about the message, not the medium. In time, we may come to see the closure of newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News as a beginning rather than an end.

Chetwynd, March 23, 2009 – 859 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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