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March 30, 2009
Newspapers May Die, But
The next step in the evolution of the American newspaper will take place
this week in Michigan, where the state’s biggest paper will start the
shift from a paper-only product to focusing on the Web as its platform
to deliver the news. Starting this week, the Detroit Free Press
and Detroit News will be delivered only on three days determined
to be high readership days. The rest of the time, subscribers will have
to access the news through the Internet or through an edition purchased
at the newsstand.
The shift from home delivery of a product printed on dead trees to one
printed with pixels has been long discussed in journalism circles,
prompting criticism that the notion is hopelessly naďve about the nature
of the Web, but also inspiring hope that perhaps journalism in Detroit
There are, indeed, serious practical issues. One concerns subscribers
who pay the full subscription rate, but who can’t get a physical form of
the paper unless they shell out extra money on the four off-days to a
newsstand vendor. It’s difficult to understand why anyone, especially
those people who enjoy holding the paper in their hands – a substantial
portion of a print newspaper’s readership – would do such a thing.
The move, however, has sparked a whole array of commentary on the death
of the newspaper as if it represents the death of journalism itself.
Observers within the industry bemoan the loss of shoe-leather reporting,
claiming that if and when newspapers just simply stop existing, this
will stop. As can be expected, this has touched off a whole new round of
the blogger vs. journalism debate that raged during the early years of
lot has changed since then, and the breadth and expertise of bloggers
has expanded greatly. The paradigm is both no longer relevant and no
longer useful. Experts, some of them in response to shortcomings in the
mainstream press, have started their own blogs. You no longer need to go
to a mainstream report for the latest climate research, for instance.
Due in part, at least, to poor reporting, a group of climate scientists
got together and founded Real Climate, which seeks to provide rapid
commentary on the latest news and emerging trends in research.
The question today is no longer bloggers versus journalists, but how
everyone can get along in this new environment in such a way that
democracy can still function. At the end of the day, that’s ultimately
the real question. This raises questions about connecting local
communities to local news and issues.
For years, this has been a relevant point raised by the dead tree press.
In the last few years, however, a growing number of alternative
publications have started on the Internet, doing the nuts and bolts
reporting on local democracy that used to be the purview of the beat
reporter. For instance, AIG executives aren’t the only people who have
received questionable bonuses over the last couple of years. Earlier
this year, an alternative online publication in Connecticut revealed
that the corporate owner of the local daily print newspaper – the
Journal Register Company – had awarded millions of dollars in bonuses to
executives for firing employees and shutting down newspapers. In
response, Connecticut’s attorney general filed paperwork to stop the
The rise of online publications comes as print publications have cut
staff. In many cases, reporters fired from one outlet simply start doing
the same job online. The loss of this experience to the newspaper
industry is one of the most crippling issues facing the newspaper
industry, but the young, hungry and talented are now going to work for
themselves on the Web.
The picture for the American newspaper industry, thus, is incredibly
bleak. There is no serious talk about a bailout for the industry. But,
for American journalism, the picture isn’t nearly as grim. The mistake
comes in assuming that the one represents the other, rather than
representing a medium through which the other is expressed.
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