The Newspaper Business in the Age of Digital Media, Part 1
Who still reads the local newspaper or any newspaper for news these days? I recently saw an ad for a position at the local alternative paper looking for a digital content coordinator, essentially to help the paper “develop and define the publication’s digital presence across a variety of platforms.” In the early 1990s I interned as a Fact-Checker for the Los Angeles alternative paper just before getting my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism but went into public education instead. Like many memories from those days, the paper and its clout seemed to be a lot bigger than the current version. A lot has changed in the intervening 30-years, making me wonder, what is it going to take to make the news business work with today’s challenges?
When I was a kid I watched my dad read the LA Times every morning and watch the evening news every night. I think I still have one brother-in-law who reads the paper daily. I also have maybe one friend who is a Sunday Brunch/LA Times Calendar section kind of person. And that seems to be about it for news consumption on the part of anyone that I can think of. I think I have to go back at least 30-years to remember the last time I was a faithful subscriber to the daily newspaper, but over my life it’s been more of an occasional novelty that I quickly abandon when the piles of unread paper get too embarrassing. Granted, working nights and going to school most of my adult life, I never seemed to develop the kind of sit-down-at-the-table habits that was part of my father’s world.
My own peripatetic lifestyle aside, the problems facing modern journalism aren’t any one thing. They are technological, economic and sociological. Everyone tends to focus on the economic and technological challenges… which are very real. Losing advertising dollars to the other emerging forms of media and the whole lost Want-Ads revenue stream would be show stoppers alone. And somehow technology is expected to come to the rescue, as in just eliminate the expense of paper (storage, processing and transportation) and go digital with a website or app on one’s smartphone or tablet and it’ll all be better.
For example, in 2010 when everyone from Sports Illustrated to Time Magazine jumped on the iPad bandwagon, I was quite interested to see if I’d suddenly become more of a regular news consumer without the embarrassing piles of paper to shut me down. I wrote quite a few times about my e-News experiences (see the links below). Yeah, it turns out that even though I had been using an online system called Zinio for some time on my computer, also having access to magazines and newspapers on my iPad didn’t quite make me a regular news consumer on the platform. Well, that’s not entirely true…
I guess the error, on my part, was assuming that because I didn’t consume my news like my dad that somehow I was doing it wrong. Because sitting down with the paper every morning and watching the news every night wasn’t part of my routine, somehow I was part of the reason that newspapers were disappearing. Yeah, not so much. Turns out that thanks to the 24/7 cable news channels and continuous news cycle, I’d gotten use to the notion that I could tap into news coverage whenever something was happening or whenever I wanted to. I learned over time to not depend on an AM/PM news cycle. That’s the sociological plus technological challenge: we’re no longer on the same “news cycle” and have an expectation to get our news whenever it’s happening and whenever we want it. Way back in 2005 I realized that my need for news, especially tech related news, was being taken care of via audio and video podcasts. I was getting my news very consistently and found sources who held to journalistic standards I’d expect from any kind of news source. There was nothing on TV or traditional radio that could compete. And waiting for the monthly magazine news cycle was completely useless. So the solution isn’t really about paper versus digital versions of the news, but managing live AND on-demand availability of journalistically vetted information.
The question remains, how do you get your news? Recognizing that my experiences aren’t remotely universal, I posted an informal questionnaire about ones news habits. I’ve upgraded the questionnaire to a google-doc based survey and would greatly appreciate your responses. Please click the following link:
Previous posts about Journalism and News: