Thursday, November 17, 2005

Newspapers and the Future

Great short piece from James Lileks on the collision of the Internet and newspapers. Here's a sample:
According to recent surveys of newspaper readership, you are not reading this. You didn’t even buy the paper. You get your news from somewhere else – the internet, talk radio, an alien satellite that pipes everything through your fillings, the guy at the coffee shop who can’t shut up about Cheney. No one is reading newspapers. Not even the people who make the newspaper. Even its traditional markets – catbox liner, packing for glassware when you move – have been taken over by new alternatives. (You can pack your glassware in catbox litter, for example.) Newspapers are dead.

Really? People have been predicting the death of papers since TV started slaughtering the afternoon dailies. The rise of the home computer, for example, convinced investors to sink bazillions in proprietary systems that delivered the news on eye-killing, tumor-inducing low-res monitors. Newspapers survived. AOL did not kill the paper, because the daily paper never had AOL’s technological problems. (I can’t open the paper! It’s busy!) Cable talk shows did not kill the paper, unless you believe that people have decided that Bill O’Reilly somehow replaces the comics and horoscopes.

Bias didn’t kill the papers; even if you believe that the modern paper is staffed entirely with Bolsheviks intent on forcing everyone into hemp jumpsuits and hybrid autos, the market for lefty-slanted news is still substantial. If you can’t make a pretty penny peddling Bush-Is-Evil in this market, you’re not trying.

What threatens newspapers is the medium itself. Its virtues are undeniable – it has dispatches from foreign lands, lost-pet ads, AND it mops up spills. It has ease of use, serendipity, tradition, a reputation assembled over the decades, a mix of high and low. That’s the problem: it’s all things to all people.

This is the era of narrowcasting, of picking and choosing from a hundred different sources, most of which cover the topic better than most newspapers. No one interested in computers bothers with what newspapers have to say about the subject; no one anxious to discuss the last episode of Lost flips to the TV page on Thursday morn. It’s all on the web – the greatest public square in human history, complete with pickpockets and sphincterless pigeons.

Technology is rewriting the paradigms with such speed newspapers can barely report on them in a timely fashion, let alone adapt. A layout artist using a fancy program to arrange wire copy on a page is still doing a Gutenberg, so to speak. Meanwhile, the technologically savvy are plucking their own information out of the ether and sorting it to fit their twitchy modern life. NBC provides podcasts of its popular news programs, and you can automate the download. Grab the iPod on the way out the door, connect the FM transmitter in the car, and voila: customized radio en route to work. How can newspapers compete without giving every subscriber a personal servant who reads the paper aloud from the back seat?
Newspapers will have a place and purpose. After all, look how many times this blog links back to the Commercial Appeal. It has an unbeatable newsgathering machine and slightly more permanence than the local newscast.

They just need to redesign their websites for an Internet generation and not for the marketing teams. Not one local news site has a decent, widely accessible, fast-loading, clean, clutter-free layout.

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