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The Death of News?

Benjamin Adair

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The Chicago Tribune
(Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)


In light of the Tribune Company bankruptcy and the massive loan the New York Times just leveraged on its own building, the future of daily journalism looks to be on life support. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Weekend America's Ben Adair debunks the top three myths of the media meltdown and tells us why reports of newspapers' demise have been severely exaggerated.

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Newspapers have been under siege for a long time. There were the challenges brought by the pamphlet and broadside industries back in the 1700s. Later there were the telegraph and telephone monopolies. Not to mention radio and TV. Those were really going to be the death of newspapers. And now, 50 years later, the Internet is finally going to do it, right?

"No, that's not true at all," says John Morton. Morton analyzes the newspaper industry and helps newspaper publishers figure out how to make money in this new economy. Myth number one about the current state of newspapers is the idea that they don't make any money.

"For the first nine months of this year," explains Morton, "the average operating profit margin was 11 percent. There are some industries that can't ever hope to get that high of a profit margin."

Morton says that we only hear about the big city papers, such as the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times. But there are 1400 daily newspapers in this US, with an average circulation of 35,000. Even though smaller papers aren't doing as well as they once were, they're still making a profit. It's a question of scale. Profits margins are shrinking, down from 40 percent to something like 10 to 20 percent. But there are patterns emerging. For the most part, smaller papers are doing better than larger ones. And privately held companies are fairing better than publicly traded. 15 / 122

"The future of newspapers is going to be much less profitable than it has been in the past," says Morton. "Newspaper owners just have to come to grips with it."

Myth number two: The Internet wants newspapers to fail. Does Google want to kill all newspapers?

"No, we don't," says Josh Cohen. He's responsible for news.google.com, and he says that contrary to popular belief, aggregator sites like his depend on daily newspapers and really want them to succeed and be profitable so they can keep covering their local communities. Because, to be honest, if daily newspapers die, Google news will also die.

"Search engine don't create content," explains Cohen. "It's really about helping people find content. So if there's not great content, whether it's newspapers or other types of content, there's really not a lot for people to search for."

So Google News has been partnering with daily papers to help them in three specific ways.

Number one: distribution. You search Google, you find a relevant article, you click and you go to a newspaper's website, which is basically the internet's way of pitching a paper up your driveway.

Number two: engagement. Google provides technology to newspapers to make their websites and stories much more dynamic. A recent example was an easily updated Google Map that the LA Times put on its website to keep Angelenos abreast of the latest wildfires. When you clicked the map, you could see the ever-changing boundaries of the fire and look at new photos linked to very specific locations. You could see where the evacuation sites were located, and even get directions to drive there and volunteer.

Finally, Google helps papers make money on the internet by brokering both text and display advertisements. It's not the new economic model for daily papers, but it could be a part of it.

"More and more people are reading the news these days, they're just reading it in a different way," says Cohen. "And so increasingly from our side, it's how can people find what they're looking for. We're able to provide the papers with reach that they don't necessarily have on their own."

Which brings us to myth number three. If newspapers are dying, that means journalism is dying.

"Journalism is very much still still alive," says Neil Henry. He's the dean of the journalism school at the University of California Berkeley. Not only is it still very much alive, Henry says it might be "at the dawn of a tremendous rebirth." Newspaper newsrooms can be very sad and depressing these days, Henry says, but he tells his students that times of great tumult have always meant really good things for journalism.

"As we embark on what appears to be one of the greatest and most challenging times since the Great Depression, I was thinking about the works that were done during the Great Depression," says Henry. "The great writers who emerged, the great photo-documentarians documenting what was happening to migrant workers and factory workers around the country. It was a time when the value of information in a democracy became clear in a lot of different ways. And I'm thinking that perhaps, with the practice of journalism in the digital age, that as we face this great calamity that is before us, maybe journalism will again arise to the level that it has in its past."

Nobody knows the future of newspapers. But one thing is clear: Newspapers, just like the news, will be with us for at least the foreseeable future.

  • Music Bridge:
    A Little Anarchy Never Hurt Everyone
    Artist: Gutbucket
    CD: A Modest Proposal (Cuneiform)

Comments

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  • By Mark Tompkins

    04/01/2009

    The solution is simple, according to capitalism. The "free press" as it were, was not meant to be free. Only free discussions. The paperboy has always charged, I don't think that the paper was ever actually free to acquire. In this light, newspapers should have charged from the starting gate. The fact that they didn't is their own downfall. If print starts charging now for information accessible via internet (day late, dollar short, literally), maybe some people can keep their jobs.

    By Emily Sussman

    From Columbia, MO, 12/21/2008

    Interesting piece. Worthy of a much longer story!

    By Byron Bailey

    From Cincinnati, OH, 12/13/2008

    Can anyone identify the music featured as the Death of News story closed?

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