Monday, November 30, 2015

First, horseless carriages; soon, paperless newspapers

Recently a fellow told me newspapers are dead. He was quite adamant. No one reads newspapers anymore, he said. He was, of course, overstating his case but there is a core of truth here. The big offset presses of the world will not be pumping out millions of newspapers indefinitely. At some point the rollers will stop rolling, the ink pots will go dry and fleets of trucks will be parked and sold.

But newspapers are more than just newsprint stained with ink, newspapers are also bricks and mortar, newspapers are businesses. Think of The London Free Press. But the soul of the local paper is not found in the large Goss offset press. No, the soul of the paper is found in the staff -- the journalists who gather the news, the editors who massage the information and the computer experts who make everything from the digital collection to the online delivery possible.

Reportedly, most newspapers today get no more than 15 percent of total revenues from online sources. That said, the Los Angeles Times claimed in 2008 that online income had grown to the point that it was enough to cover the cost of the paper's entire news staff, both print and digital.

Jeff Jarvis wrote in the guardian:

So in the LA Times revelation, I see hope: the possibility that online revenue could support digital journalism for a city. The enterprise will be smaller, but it could well be more profitable than its print forebears today and - here's the real news - it would grow from there. Imagine that: news as a growth industry again.

I'm a news junkie. I admit it. I still get the daily paper delivered to my door. But, I also get daily news feeds from many online sources. I first began experimenting with the paperless newspaper more than twenty years ago. Using my Apple Mac hooked up to an unbelievably slow modem, I used GENIE, General Electric Network for Information Exchange, to download text data. GENIE wasn't free but it wasn't outrageously expensive either: about $9 a month and $3 an hour after the first four hours.

About a year after I joined GENIE, I became a Crayon.net subscriber. Crayon stands for Create Your Own Newspaper. I say stands for and not stood for because Crayon is still in existence today. GENIE, on the other hand, is long gone.

As a boy, my grandfather introduced me to two magazines he felt were worth a read: the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. The Atlantic Monthly was born in 1857 and is still going today in both print and online editions. The online edition is known simply as The Atlantic and costs about half as much online as at the store. If, like many readers, you choke at the idea of paying for articles online, a lot of the content is available free online.

Harper's Magazine was first printed in 1867. It has successfully skirted some rough financial shoals and is still on sale in stores today. Like The Atlantic, it is also found online. I don't believe there is a charge for the online edition. I believe both the magazine and the Harper's Magazine Foundation are supported by purchases made from their online store.

What I find most interesting here is that Atlantic Media, the folk behind The Atlantic Monthly, a publication with a history going back more than a century and a half, is experimenting with a free, business-oriented, online paperless newspaper called Quartz. I get an e-mail every day announcing what is new.

And there are more paperless newspapers testing marketplace acceptance. Think Politico and Vox.com.

Traditional newspapers are in trouble but often their problems are amplified by the decisions of their new owners. Think of The London Free Press. To fill the daily news hole, the small, southwestern Ontario daily must run stories from Windsor and other cities located hundreds of kilometers away. Why "must" they do this? Staff cutbacks.  Everyone agrees that local stories sell papers but chain-owned newspapers can no longer afford to cover all the local stories they once would have covered.

And why the severe slashing of news staff and others? To free up money to service Post Media's massive debt ($650 million) which, in large part, is owed to a number of U.S. and Canadian hedge funds specializing in distressed assets. Gaining control of the majority of English-language daily papers in Canada was not cheap and it may not have been too bright either.

The Fisher brothers, builders of horse-drawn carriages, switched to building horseless carriages, car bodies, and stayed in business. Whether Post Media will be able to make the successful transition to a paperless newspaper is an open question. But organizations more focused on providing news rather than servicing debt may well keep journalists and their support staff, the soul of the daily paper, busy pumping out news for interested readers as has been done for generations.

And despite the fact that the baby boomer generation is aging and departing (yes, dying), the generations following are, contrary to popular opinion, still interested in news.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that the conventional wisdom about Millennials’ consumption of news is wrong. Millennials engage news sources differently than past generations to be sure, but the label “newsless” is largely inaccurate.

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