The future of the post-paper written word
Everyone makes mistakes, but I’ve made three predictions in my lifetime that have proven to be so incredibly wrong that, were I a captain of industry,they would have cost billions:
1) Titanic would, despite its zillion-dollar budget, make a very modest box office showing.
2) If hometown band The Fray failed to release a sophomore album within two or three years of their first big buzz, they would be forgotten.
3) There will always be a market for print media.
That last one is particularly embarassing, as I made the pronouncement days after my paymasters put The Rocky Mountain News on the auction block. There’s audacity, and then there’s just not giving a fuck about all observable evidence.
In my defense, I was (and am) all too aware that print’s business model is in shambles, and that the Web is toppling giants every day. But the core reasoning is sound: Print, however primitive, is a superior reading experience. The same case was made by Time editor-at-large Josh Quittner in his piece The Race for a Better Read.
How right is Quittner? Right enough that I shelled out $5 for a tissue-thin copy of Time, knowing full well that I could read it online for free. His piece works in tandem with managing editor Walter Isaacson’s How to Save Your Newspaper to form a two-part argument: newspapers can become profitable again by adopting an easy-to-use, inexpensive micropayment system, and this system will catch on because of a new generation of e-readers that, increasingly, will be able to deliver an experience to rival paper. (The latter is also a point Jonathan Hamilton made when he pretty swiftly shut down my argument that print’s superiority meant it could survive the march of technological progress.)
What Quittner and Isaacson don’t address is who will thrive and who will fall in the epoch of e-readers. Chastened from the last round of terribly bad prognosticating, I offer some more modest estimations:
Local papers, as we understand them, will be more or less over. Actual community newspapers, who do the hard, inglorious and, frankly, boring work of attending city council meetings and Rotary Club to-dos ought to preserve their niche, but your local midsize city paper, larded up with syndicated columnists and AP wire stories, will continue to hemorrhage money. These papers, once able to make a living on homogenized national news content by being the only ones in the area to distribute it, should already be making efforts to switch to a model built specifically on local and regional news. The good thing about such a model is that while, in print, it would mean a suicidal shrink in ad space, it could become vital, profitable content in the micropayment model, since it’s unlikely to be duplicated for free all across the Web.
Good news for fans of investigative journalism. As Isaacson points out, a micropayment system is a strong incentive for journalists to produce content that people will actually read. Serious news outlets will have a choice: produce valuable, unique content, or lose out to the outlets who do. Now, there would be a disincentive to waste too much time and effort duplicating the same man-bites-dog story available everywhere and to focus on the strengths of the written word — investigative journalism, thoughtful analysis and informative journalism.
The end of ‘objectivity.’ (Here I go again with the dangerous pronouncements.) A news model built on micropyaments and local/regional papers getting out of the national political game both contribute to the same end result: People will consume less content that runs contrary to their world view. Read letters to the editor from any mid-size city paper and, day in and day out, you’re likely to find someone with a partisan axe to grind — someone who takes issue with their local paper’s intolerable editorial slant. In the physical newspaper paradigm, they’re stuck with these papers only because the angry man in Ohio can’t get home delivery of the more agreeable paper in Michigan. When the era of e-readers finishes knocking down this barrier to equal worldwide reach and local papers increasingly get out of the business of national politics, the tendency of readers to flock to outlets that reflect their beliefs (already apparent in the success of Huffington Post, Free Republic and other partisan sites) will only be amplified. And while readers might have taken the time to read opposing opinions in their local papers just to have something to feel incensed over, it’s not likely that many will be willing to pay for the luxury.
Is that a bad thing? That’s hard to say. It’s hard to find something to like about the public withdrawing to their own ideological echo chambers, but it’s not unprecedented. In the time of Lincoln, for example, newspapers were up front about their biases and made no apologies for being the standard-bearers of their respective parties. Partisans picked their papers accordingly, and discerning consumers of news would read competing papers for a fuller worldview.
On one hand, we risk further undermining consensus reality (which is already in a pretty bad way.)On the other hand, the contemporary notion of unbiased coverage substitutes real objectivity for an ideological balance, facts be damned. Can further self-segregating our news consumption wreck consensus reality any worse than a newspaper suggesting, say, that one senator’s belief in unicorns constitutes a controversy and unsettled debate over their existence? That’s a question that, for all the liberties I’ve taken here, I’m still not qualified to answer. It’s one we’re going to have to ask ourselves as we go through the growing pains of journalism.