There is one line from an ancient Chinese multi-curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, it would appear that we are all cursed because I don’t recall things ever being so damn fascinating.
To put it simply, big things – seemingly steady, permanent things – are crumbling to the ground. Huge banks are dissolving, rich people are now penniless, the auto industry is crippled, homeowners are now homeless and the talented dude who played Johnny Cash has gone batshit crazy. But most of all, it’s the death of so many familiar daily newspapers that has me reeling.
I recall in 1997 and 1998, when the web had just exploded into reality (Craigslist was only in San Francisco) and everyone immediately called the inevitable death of newspapers and, ultimately, books. Many at the time, including myself, saw that prediction as ludicrous and impossible to imagine. Consolidation, sure, but total eradication? Never.
Now, just 570 years after Gutenberg’s press and 404 years after the world’s first newspaper (out of Strassburg, Germany), we are watching the newspaper industry fall to its knees. As a former newspaper reporter who still misses the buzz of a newsroom and the colleague camaraderie found in the inevitable bar across the street, I am deeply saddened.
I also know that no human emotion will stand in the way of whatever represents Progress in any era. At one time, that meant the steam engine and in another, it meant radio – in this one, it’s the Internet. Watching the death of the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News here in Denver a few weeks back, brought the reality home for me. ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself, ‘All those early predictions are ultimately coming true – it’s really happening.’
Though I was not a regular reader of the RMN, my news day does begin with a paper version of the WSJ. It then continues with NPR, then Twitter, then Google News, then my inbox, which includes a number of RSS-feeds and alerts. By 9:30 a.m., I’ve fallen down multiple rabbit holes and have a pretty good handle on what’s going down. Note, that with the exception of the WSJ, I get all this for free. (Okay, I contribute monthly to NPR but they are on the honor system which is a friggin’ miracle.)
‘Free’ is the problem here, or the main reason why the titans of news are dying at an alarming rate. Today’s announcement that the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer will cease print publication and be online only is yet another notch in the belt of free online content; anyone following @themediaisdying on Twitter can attest to the body count.
Meanwhile, this morning I heard a (free!) report of three former Rocky Mountain News reporters who have teamed up with three Denver investors to create indenvertimes.com, an online-only local news source. Their plea:
“You pledge to pay as little as $4.99 a month, and if we reach our goal of 50,000 pledges by April 23 we will go live with our site to revive a tradition of distinguished reporting and editing with 21st-century electronic delivery. It’s an investment, one worth $4.99 a month to encourage a bold, creative effort to continue a vision based on a 150-year Denver tradition.”
Honestly? I applaud their ‘rising from the ashes’ mission but I worry for them. The New York Times tried online subscriptions with Times Select and gave up in September 2007. Others, such as Boston Globe and LA Times, have met the same fate. (The Wall Street Journal still pulls it off, presumably because the subscriptions are business-related and therefore, write-offs.)
Mark Potts, over at the Recovering Journalist blog recently addressed this question in his thorough post, ‘Doing the Math on Online Newspaper Subscriptions’:
“Clamoring for a few pennies from online subscriptions is not going to rescue the newspaper business, and in fact, it could strike a fatal blow if it undermines what advertising revenue is already there. There’s much, much more money to be had by maximizing online advertising revenue opportunities than there is by trying to coerce readers to pay to visit newspaper sites. What’s needed is serious effort to make newspaper Web advertising a robust form of revenue that supports quality news organizations.”
I’m not sure what the answer is but my buddies in the news biz are saying things like, “Well, I’ve always wanted to be a life coach” and “So, how much rent do you pay in Denver?”
Ultimately, humans – being needy, yappy creatures – still crave communication with one another in some form, which is why things like Twitter and Facebook happen.
I recall last month’s story by my favorite WSJ reporter, Jeffrey Zaslow, called ‘Why You Don’t Want to Die On a Sunday in Detroit.’ Now that the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press cut their home delivery to three days a week, people are kicking the bucket without as much notice to their pals – specifically, pals who still walk the earth but refuse to go buy a paper or who cannot/will not access the news online. Hence, funerals are being missed.
Some quotes from the article:
“We’ll have to go back to word of mouth. We’ll try to condition people: ‘Make sure you call all your mom’s friends to say she died.'” –David Techner, funeral director at Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield, Michigan
“Will I need to go out on cold, icy mornings to find a newsstand that might have your paper – or do I wait until Thursday to find out that a friend was buried two days ago?” –letter to the Detroit Free Press from reader Phyllis Look
“I recognize that this will be disruptive to older citizens, (but) I can’t drive the paper to your home every day and maintain this business model.” –David Hunke, publisher of the Free Press
“You may want to keep better track of the people you love, so you know what’s happening in their lives. Don’t wait until they die.” –Joan Borysenko, psychologist
Hence, the birth of social media.
Next up? I can’t possibly imagine but I am remembering another part of that Chinese curse, “May you find what you are looking for.”