Newspapers and the Internet

Who'll replace the Inquirer? And how come I'm not worried?

What do you and Alexander Hamilton have in common?
What do you and Alexander Hamilton have in common?

Denver's Rocky Mountain News folded last week. The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune are in bankruptcy. Here in Philly, the Inquirer and Daily News, went into Chapter 11 last month. Check your local newspaper, whether here or in other parts of the country. Shrinking news-holes and smaller staffs are now the norm. And so are a lot of Cassandra-like alarums that the end of an objective daily press is looming.

Much of this tear jerking comes, not surprisingly, from representatives of the print media themselves, from reporters to media barons (now officially demoted, by the way, to media squires). Copyboys would likely be squawking as well, if copyboys still existed.

The Internet, of course, is always designated as the chief perp, with an increasingly longer rap sheet that includes such villainy as "real time immediacy," "promoting subjective opinion," "specialized, unique content," and— holy recidivist behavior!— "free access." Not just readership, but ads are seeping away. In particular, classified ads, traditionally the flowing black ink of newspapers (both literally and figuratively), have segued to free Internet sites such as Craigslist.

Asking the wrong question

Has the Internet hurt Philadelphia's papers? Surely, yes. But that's the wrong question. The right question— which print journalists rarely ask— is: What can newspapers do to accommodate and evolve in an Internet age?

The answer is difficult for print people to face: Many of the country's 1,500 daily papers will need to go.

Not all main-streamers have figured this out. I have a Facebook "friend," a top Inquirer editor, who rants daily about the need to "monetize" the paper's currently free on-line service, The solution to the industry's financial woes, he argues, is transforming its news websites from free to paid access.

One wonders what he and other Internet bashers would say about the former darling of the left, the late pamphleteer I.F. Stone, if he were still around. Stone was the blogger of his day (the "'50s and "'60s). So was Ben Franklin, for that matter. Same church. Different pew.

Vital to democracy? Says who?

My Facebook friend injects yet another causa belli: The survival of fact-driven print media and their collateral websites is vital to American democracy. What with the proliferation of opinion-driven websites, he asks earnestly, where else would objective news come from?

Sorry, that train has already left the station. The Times tried a paid-site, Times Select, not long ago. The paper quickly abandoned the venture, noting that the reach of its top columnists shrunk and, lo, their influence. (As far as objectivity goes, see above). Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, has similarly abandoned paid Internet services in favor of free ones.

(Time for full disclosure. My family and I own shares in the Times. On the other hand, I'm a former reporter for newspapers in New England, including the Hartford Courant, the Worcester Telegram, and the Boston Globe.)

Back to the future

Newspapers today are evolving— but then, they always have been. The jam-packed, advertising-rich daily newspaper, with its weekly food section, daily financial section, and celebrity gossip is a relatively new phenomenon. Even a daily newspaper has not always been the norm. The best-informed men of their times, the founders, read weeklies (Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Post as a weekly).

Today's reality might mean a return to yesterday's reality— or, a combination of several models that will constitute the journalism industry of the future.

First, this country can no longer support, nor (thanks to alternative electronic media) does it need 1,500 daily papers with frequently redundant content. Some might fold; others might become weeklies. Others, as suggested by Steve Coll in The New Yorker, might convert to endowment-supported non-profits, as is already the case with the Day in New London, Connecticut, and the Guardian in London. Papers like the Inquirer might try their hand as weeklies.

Here comes the Times

The Inquirer may never again be a Pulitzer-winning newspaper, nor does it have to be to do its local job effectively. If the Inquirer shrinks, would fact-driven coverage of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley be then compromised? Not necessarily. The surviving strong national daily newspapers— say, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, even the Financial Times— would have new economic incentives to expand to serious regional coverage.

If the Inquirer were to fold or shrink, I suspect these nationals— in the European model— would move to fill Philadelphia's news vacuum. Who else in Greater Philadelphia could better serve the Inquirer's middle-class readership? The alternative weeklies are too youth-oriented; the Metro is too down-market; and the right-wing Bulletin knows what it means to put loca in local news.

Will we soon see a daily/weekly Philadelphia edition of the Times? A weekly roundup of local business news by the Financial Times? Even coverage of Philadelphia's arts scene might come via daily Variety.

The Internet isn't the enemy. Like the telegraph, the Pony Express, the telephone, cinema newsreels, radio, TV— and even smoke signals way before that— it's just a catalyst for change. And since this change is inevitable, why not welcome it and make the most of it?

To read responses, click here and here.

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