Thursday, March 27, 2008

Will The Internet Stop The Presses?

There's an interesting article on the continuing decline of newspapers in the March 31, issue of the New Yorker. Out of Print, The death and life of the American newspaper, written by Eric Alterman, is exhaustive in its examination of what's going on in the newspaper industry.

I've quoted a few excerpts that hit close to home with respect to the newspaper situation here in Santa Barbara.

The first comes in response to the rhetorical question, are newspapers dead?

Perhaps not, but trends in circulation and advertising––the rise of the Internet, which has made the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive; the advent of Craigslist, which is wiping out classified advertising––have created a palpable sense of doom.

So News-Press owner Wendy McCaw needn't worry about the proposed elimination of parking in De la Guerra Plaza which she fears will make it inconvenient for people placing classified ads to come into the News-Press building and do business. Her classifieds, along with the rest of her ads, are in the midst of an exodus to the Internet.

Until recently, newspapers were accustomed to operating as high-margin monopolies. To own the dominant, or only, newspaper in a mid-sized American city was, for many decades, a kind of license to print money.

That was certainly true of the News-Press. And now with virtually no middle management or reporters in the newsroom, it probably continues to be a cash cow for McCaw. Too bad she's spending all of the profits on attorney's fees.

The columnist Molly Ivins complained, shortly before her death, that the newspaper companies’ solution to their problem was to make “our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.”

Hmmm. Need I say more?

Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper. The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.

Well, I'll plead guilty to that.

Today, almost all serious newspapers are scrambling to adapt themselves to the technological and community-building opportunities offered by digital news delivery, including individual blogs, video reports, and “chat” opportunities for readers.

Other than "News-Press TV," what has McCaw done to improve the paper's Internet presence? The paper has no blogs, no on-line chats, no RSS feeds so that readers can be alerted to new stories as soon as they are posted. The News-Press' website is about as up-to-date as a Model T Ford.

Last week, when the journalism students of the Santa Barbara Middle School had a chance to do an interview via e-mail with News-Press co-publisher and "Santa Barbara's Best Kept Man," Arthur von Wiesenberger, one of the questions they asked him was whether he thought newspapers were dying? His response:

Newspapers are in transition. We have a strong subscriber base who we are dedicated to that has a tradition and ritual in reading a physical newspaper. But we are mindful that there is a generation that is web savvy and uses desktops, laptops and mobile phones to get their news. We are also dedicating ourselves to these readers and believe in the coming months new developments at will be compelling and exciting.

Actually I'd guess that most readers, like myself, would be happy if they simply covered local news.

When asked why the News-Press charges for it's on-line content when almost no other newspaper does, Arthur responded:

Giving away the news cannibalizes the print product. Local Internet advertising does not pay for reporters or operating costs. We believe that a mix of free news with premium services is the right combination.

"Premium services?" Just what is offered in the News-Press these days that can't be found elsewhere on-line? Wire service stories? Local news stories?

Stories about national and world news events are just a Google search away. And both the Daily Sound, Noozhawk and the Independent offer local news stories for free on their websites. If "premium services" is a reference to mean-spirited editorials and vindictive op-ed page columns I think most readers will be saying, "no thanks."

So, as the newspaper industry goes, so goes Wendy McCaw's News-Press. Too bad. It didn't have to be that way.