You gotta love any article about the incredible shrinking newspaper audience that includes this graf:
If you agree with me that the newspaper business has been on a slow,
unstoppable train ride to hell for many decades and that the Web has
only accelerated its descent, then you’ll enjoy another article in
yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.
Y’see, over at Slate, they’re pretty much hanging on the rim over the woes over on the dead-tree side of the information distribution biz. Apparently, more than 30 years ago, back in the mid-70s, which was about the time that I was getting interested in the news biz
Tiresome aside: my earliest job in the industry was delivering free weekly shoppers to the doorsteps of the surly alcoholics in Altoona, Wis. I got paid about a penny per paper stuck in the rusty screen doors of various houses, shacks and trailers. I was so thrilled with the job that I took the heavy
canvas bag full of papers on my shoulder and dumped most of them down the storm drain.
Even then, a media critic.
But back to our storyline. Back in the 70s, I say, the newspapers were starting to realize that All Was Not Well. At the moment of their greatest triumph – bringing down Tricky Dick and his minions – they looked around to see that the numbers, they were whispering dire things. Like Alexander the Great, weeping into the Indian Ocean because he had run out of world to conquer… or something. Maybe that metaphorical image doesn’t fit. Maybe more like: a carnival barker selling tickets to the hoochie-kootchie dance who realizes that the local rubes aren’t lining up to see sweaty, floppy Marge and Ida anymore, because the local Walgreen’s has started stocking Playboy…
Better? Or more disturbing?
Meanwhile, back at the storyline, the papers did then what they are doing now – they hired people to look at the industry and tell them what to do.
The solutions proposed by Preserving the Press and Shaw’s
article read like the standard prescriptions written today: Make an
attempt to "reconnect" with readers, who feel alienated from
newspapers. Make coverage more local. Hook kids when they’re young. Let
readers "sound off" about issues on special pages of the paper. Connect
with and hire minorities. Expand the weather report. Introduce or
expand op-ed pages. Spice up the design and print more color. Run more
lifestyle, consumer, and personal-finance articles. Chase potential
readers—and advertisers—into the deep suburbs.
Is there a metropolitan newspaper that hasn’t taken all of this medicine? Is there
one that isn’t taking maintenance doses of these meds today? And yet
newspaper circulation continues to dribble down.
Ah, plus ca change, eh? And these days, it’s not the ephemeral nature of the population, the sprawl from urban to suburban to exurban that’s doing it. It’s them damn internets, ain’t it!
The solutions are as varied as the writers. But like a bad horror movie, the authorities know that there’s a (circulation) killer on the loose, and Something Has To Be Done!
Over at Andy Kessler’s deep thinking and scribbled napkin brain-a-torium, he’s devoting even more candlepower to illuminating the "Whither the media" question. He’s got some interesting what-ifs about what’s going to take YouTube (and Cingular, Sprint et al. as well, incidentally) out:
- Newspaper and TV journalists had a long run as the trust voice
of news. Now distributed bloggers can take turns scooping
professionals. It’s not only that distributed news gathering is
cheaper, its the zero marginal cost of distribution. Post it to a blog,
get picked up by other blogs and search engines. Bask in glory. Rinse.
In each of these examples, because of marginal costs approaching
zero, it is increasingly a better business to provide technology to
millions, even billions of folks rather than try to protect the control
of a pipe to a few. The right answer is to GO WIDE. It’s time
to get horizontal. Newspapers should have licensed Craigslist’s (or
eBay’s) technology years ago. Telcos should have embraced or emulated
Skype. Drop CDs and distribute all your music (and everyone else’s)
online at a price that doesn’t protect retail, but destroys it
The problem is one that is going to dog us more and more in the years to come: with the margins going thinner than angstrom-edged razor blades because of piracy and the fatpipe replacing distribution, howinhell are we going to get our big expensive spectacles funded when they can’t make back their budget? Worse, in the cacophony of craptastic Mentos-TV, how do you find the interesting indie Sex, Lies & Videotape jewel that you would love?
Kessler doesn’t have an answer, so he punts it over to his BFF, Mark Cuban, who does. Surprise! Cuban sees the future as belonging to, well, to people like him.
Uh-huh. Yeah, funny how that works out, ain’t it?
Mashups, hyperlinks? We have seen it all before in the music
business. Anyone can produce and distribute any song they want. We have seen
some artists and songs emerge, but very, very few. And that is in an
environment where there truly are no digital barriers to entry. Yet the moguls
are still the moguls. Not as strong, but still in control. I don’t see them
going away. Why? Because in a long tail universe, the cost to crawl up the tail
to the rat’s ass is more expensive than the production. Which means only the
people with the money can make the investment, which brings you back to the