By the usual indicators, daily newspapers are in a deepening downward spiral. The new year brought reports of more newsroom layoffs, dwindling print circulation, flat or declining ad sales, increasing defections of readers and advertisers to the Internet, and sullen investors. Wall Street so undervalues traditional publishing that McClatchy’s stock price briefly rose when it sold off the Minneapolis Star Tribune at a fire-sale price, mainly for the $160 million tax benefit. As succeeding generations grow up with the Web and lose the habit of reading print, it seems improbable that newspapers can survive with a cost structure at least 50 percent higher than their nimbler and cheaper Internet competitors. (“No trucks, no trees,” says the former Boston Globe publisher Ben Taylor.) The dire future predicted by the now-classic video, EPIC 2014, in which Google, Amazon, and an army of amateurs eventually drive out even The New York Times, begins to feel like a real risk.
Yet a far more hopeful picture is emerging. In this scenario the mainstream press, though late to the party, figures out how to make serious money from the Internet, uses the Web to enrich traditional journalistic forms, and retains its professionalism—along with a readership that is part print, part Web. Newspapers stay alive as hybrids. The culture and civic mission of daily print journalism endure.
Can that happen? Given the financial squeeze and the shortsightedness of many publishers and investors, will dailies be able to navigate such a transition without sacrificing standards of journalism? Or will cost-cutting owners so thoroughly gut the nation’s newsrooms that they collapse the distinction between the rest of the Internet and everything that makes newspapers uniquely valuable?
Which newspapers are most likely to survive? And, while we are at it, why does the survival of newspapers matter? In an era when the Web explodes the monopoly of the print newspaper as authoritative assembler of the day’s news and invites readers to be both aggregators and originators of content, what remains distinctive about newspapers?
Defenders of print insist that nothing on the Web can match the assemblage of reportorial talent, professionalism, and public mission of a serious print daily. The 2006 State of the News Media Report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that just 5 percent of blog postings included “what would be considered journalistic reporting.” Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote a skeptical piece about Web journalism in The New Yorker last July, concluding that not much of the blogosphere “yet rises to the level of a journalistic culture rich enough to compete in a serious way with the old media—to function as a replacement rather than an addendum.” John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, says, “Take any story in a blog and trace its origins, about eighty-five percent of it can be traceable to newspapers. They break nearly all of the important stories. Who’s going to do the reporting if these institutions fade away?”
By contrast, celebrants of the Web contend that the Internet is freer, more democratic, deliberative, interactive, and civic than the self-interested elites of old media dare admit. “The priesthood of gatekeepers is being disbanded. It’s over,” says Christopher Lydon, a one-time New York Times reporter, now hosting Open Source on Public Radio International.
In exploring whether newspapers as we know them are likely to endure, and why we should care, I sought out Wall Street analysts, press critics, journalism professors, business consultants, publishers, editors, reporters, and the search-engine companies and multifarious originators of Web content that are challenging newspapers. The Internet has famously turned the authority structure upside down; so perhaps not surprisingly, one of my most informative interviews was with a colleague, a twenty-two-year-old prodigy we can call Ezra. Before we defenders of newspapers become too smug about what makes us special, he’s worth listening to.
I opened the conversation by inviting us to compare how we get our daily ration of information. I begin my day, I immodestly confessed, by reading four newspapers. What do you do?