The Future of Newspapers is Paved with Code

Double Octuple Newspaper Press

Innovation tends to create new niches, rather than refill those that already exist. So technologies may become marginal, but they rarely go extinct.

“Only the digital dies,” The Economist, January 26, 2013

Earlier this January, I posited the publishing industry would not stop printing books, or at least not hardbacks. Indeed, the lesson of history and technology history is not that technologies die, but that demand for technologies realign.

If my prognostications about publishing are correct, the old-style printing presses — now being sold for pennies — may come back into fashion. The cheapest forms of book publication — once paperback books, now ebooks — may be in direct competition for reader’s hands, but keepsakes like hardbacks should become only more expensive and important in the marketplace.

Where does that leave newspapers? Unlike magazines, which are printed full color on glossy paper and on a longer schedule, newspapers churn out their cheap-ink-on-recycled-paper product daily. The newspaper, for ages, was the cheapest form of news transmission. And though many blame internet news for killing it’s physical-news brother, the internet merely has dealt the death blow — or perhaps knockout punch. But we must remember, the first act of violence began with the radio.

Like television, radio airwaves are free. Though it requires substantial financial inputs to build a radio station and (presently minimal) financial inputs to receive radio transmissions, the actual delivery of the product is nowhere the same cost of delivering a newspaper, which requires fuel, manpower, and a complex delivery system.

Mr. Barefield, an important political science teacher from my youth, once described how, on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination, the local Dallas newspapers had to print dozens of supplemental editions to keep pace with the steady news stream from television, which had recently developed the technology necessary to send live camera feeds from actual news locations.

The medium of television gave Walter Cronkite the ability to offer constantly updated, revised, and developing news — and cheaply.

For the newspaper, a trafficker in inexpensive news, radio and television offered initial, harsh blows. But as cable networks developed 24-hour news networks, making television news once again a paid-for service, newspapers settled into their niche.

Online news offers a more direct competition. The startup costs for an online news source are minimal to the point of nonexistence (some now-prominent news outlets began as free blogs). And the transmission of news is more easier than ever — almost every citizen of an industrial nation has easy, often constant access to the internet.

So where do local newspapers go? Online with the rest, has been part of the answer. Most local newspapers now offer more robust news coverage on their website than in their printed medium. Which makes sense: There is no size limit online. An extra 2,000 words represent only a few more bits of data and space to store data has become only cheaper with time.

Will newspapers disappear? Their competition, which does not leave ink on fingers or require financial input, seems to have an edge in every meaningful category.

Newspaper companies themselves will survive — many local newspapers are the sole news provider, or one of very few, for their area. And local news will always be in demand. (People need to know who to blame for the potholes.)

But the printed paper, like the printed book, has to find it’s niche. Perhaps newspapers would be better to transition their efforts towards the free weekly papers — such as Creative Loafing in Atlanta, Tampa, and elsewhere, or the Chicago Reader. These weekly papers offer less news, more commentary and local events.

These tabloid-style (tabloid in their cut and folding, not necessarily in their content) papers are free to the readers, though rich in advertising. Many of these weekly papers are already produced by the daily-newspaper companies, and these could in turn act as supplemental components of robust online and smartphone-app-based news delivery. The RedEye, a free weekly newspaper in Chicago, has a smartphone app that offers more than just news. I now use it as my primary tool for checking bus and train times when traveling around the city.

Perhaps newspapers can take advantage of the surge towards “infotainment” — news geared towards entertaining more than informing — and acquire the former journalists of now-shuttered investigative journalism departments at places such as CNN. With a plethora of outlets offering only commentary, newspapers could (and again, this may be better-suited to weekly publication and certainly online publication) fill the vacuum of global and national news reporting left by once-respected 24-hour news networks.

More and more newspapers are building so-called “pay walls” for access to their full content. For some news outlets, this does not make sense, but for outlets focused on special reports and insider information, pay walls have not only become the norm, but acceptable to most visitors.

The daily newspaper, like the trebuchet and papyrus scrolls mentioned in the above Economist article, will continue to have fans. Print on demand technology has improved considerably over recent years, which may suggest the physical newspaper may never die. But for the companies that create those papers, extinction looms if they do not recognize The New Cheap, the benefits of technological progress, not just the dangers — if they do not recognize the future of news is paved with digital code.

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