I'm not sure when I fell in love with newspapers. Maybe it was when my brother got his first newspaper route and my father (this, the anniversary of his death, by the way), my brother, and I would get up at dawn and load bundles of The Pottstown Mercury into my father's station wagon. With the tailgate down and my brother and I sitting on it, my father would drive slowly through our neighborhood and we would each jump off every couple of houses and drop the paper on the front steps. Frankly, I don't think this bucolic episode lasted very long but it's a great memory.
Or maybe I fell in love when my first story was published in the self-same Mercury, the report on a birthday party in my first-grade class. I got the byline because the editor lived on our street but everyone in the class worked on the "piece," a three-paragraph "story" with one-syllable words. I've felt guilty ever since. Or maybe it was when that editor hired me as a reporter when I was sixteen. Here I am interviewing Miss Pennsylvania and Miss Pottstown Sesquicentennial. (Forgive me if I've published this picture before here - I thought I had but can't find it through search.)
So I don't know precisely when holding the paper became synonymous with the next day being worth living but its roots lie somewhere among these mental shards. Just yesterday, my hubby and I were bemoaning the slimness of the two papers we subscribe to and wondering whether the last day of their arrival in the driveway would precede our last days.
Thanks then to Kathy Hansen's A Storied Career, which alerted me to the work of Univ of North Carolina Journalism School Professor-Emeritus Phil Meyer. Nearly fifteen years ago, Meyer predicted the predicament newspapers find themselves in today. Revenues were certain to fall, he said, and publishers should shift some energy into increasing community influence (see his article, "Learning to Love Lower Profits," in American Journalism Review). Unaccounted for in his prediction was the major disruption introduced by the Internet itself.
Ten years after that, he published The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, a book that included numerous charts and graphs, the kinds of things the press loves to jump all over and extrapolate from. In "The Elite Newspaper of the Future," an American Journalism Review article from Oct-Nov '08, Meyer reports on how The Economist interpreted his data: "In his book 'The Vanishing Newspaper,' Philip Meyer calculates that the first quarter of 2043 will be the moment when newsprint dies in America as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition."
Meyer goes on to lay out the fallacy in this argument. No newspaper will publish until it only has one subscriber. And there are likely more disruptive technologies coming down the pike in the years to come, ones that will jettison craigslist, blogs, and online publishing in just the ways that those technologies have sounded the death-knell for newspapers.
What Meyer recommends for newspapers is to shift their energies to what they do best - engendering community influence and holding the public trust. How they do that without ad revenue is the puzzle and he suggests narrowing the "buffet" of material. I kind of agree. Kind of because I haven't completely thought this through (ah, blogging, wild speculation is thy name). Here's what he's suggesting (and I'm pushing the copyright limits so please go to the "Elite Newspaper" article link to get the whole thing):
One of the rules of thumb for coping with substitute technology is to narrow your focus to the area that is the least vulnerable to substitution. Michael Porter included it in his list of six strategies in his book "Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance." The railroads survived the threat from trucks on Interstate highways and airlines by focusing on the one thing they could still do better: moving bulk cargo across long distances.
What service supplied by newspapers is the least vulnerable?
I still believe that a newspaper's most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.
By news, I don't mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don't need new information so much as help in processing what's already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.
The raw material for this processing is evidence-based journalism, something that bloggers are not good at originating.
Not all readers demand such quality, but the educated, opinion-leading, news-junkie core of the audience always will. They will insist on it as a defense against "persuasive communication," the euphemism for advertising, public relations and spin that exploits the confusion of information overload. Readers need and want to be equipped with truth-based defenses.
Newspapers might have a chance if they can meet that need by holding on to the kind of content that gives them their natural community influence. To keep the resources for doing that, they will have to jettison the frivolous items in the content buffet.