I now take it for granted that newspapers are trapped — highly profitable businesses that can’t or won’t take the kind of risks that will be crucial to survival.
I do not take it for granted that newspapers must die, however. And I definitely don’t believe journalism is dying. It’s changing.
Previous media forms didn’t die even though they lost hegemony to new media. Some newspapers make their way through what’s coming, because they’ll become the community square for whatever community it is that they serve, geographic, demographic or whatever. (That’s why the Wall Street Journal, for all its cluelessness about the Web in an archival sense, has a future, and why some local papers still have time to become the primary authorities in their areas before the online competition eats their lunch.)
The notion of driving a property to a profitable demise is pernicious, and impossible to pull off in a coherent way. It assumes that newspaper companies can milk the properties gently into their good night. No way.
What will happen, if newspaper companies don’t start working right now, is the following: Profits will dwindle to a point where Wall Street demands higher profits (or kills the stock price, making even a good newspaper company vulnerable to takeover by one of the real sharks out there). This will set off a death spiral of firing staff, losing readers and advertisers, firing more staff and so on. It will not be a slow process once it starts.
I’ve heard through the grapevine about newspaper executives who think the answer may well be to encourage some form of citizen journalism — meaning, in their construct, getting people to do all the work pro journalists do today but for no compensation while the business collects the revenues. Now there’s a business model — not.
If the newspaper business does turn out to be dying, we need to make sure that journalism does not. I apologize to my blogging friends for saying this, but the free for all in the blogging world, however valuable (and I love it), is not sufficient to replace what we’ll be missing.
We need ways to combine the best of the old and the new. That’s what I’m working on.