There has been a lot of talk recently about the future of newspapers, and how the iPad and other tablet computers might prove to be the savior of the legacy press.
Um… I’m not so sure.
No doubt the iPad will prove profitable for some publications, enabling new subscription models neither culturally nor technically well suited to the web, while Apple’s fledgling iAd service and the competitive innovation it will foster offers at least the hope of creating new forms of advertising better suited toward the particular strengths and weaknesses of the medium. As tablet, smartphone and other always-connected handheld mobile computing devices become the dominant tool for news consumption, new business opportunities are being created for advertisers and content providers alike.
But those old media empires looking to newer media for the sustainable business model they failed to find in the not-so-new, continue to ignore perhaps the must transformational aspect of the Internet revolution: the obsolescence of the “newspaper” itself, and with it, the vertically integrated institutional structure of the organizations that publish them.
1. A weekly or daily publication consisting of folded sheets and containing articles on the news, features, reviews, and advertisements
A newspaper is, at its essence, nothing more than the aggregated product of various reporters, columnists, photographers, editors, etc., collated together in a relatively easy to distribute and consume bundle of printed pages, a format which may seem obvious or inevitable, but which is largely dictated by two peculiar demands of the medium: the need to print and the need to distribute paper. The capital and operational expense this entails is substantial, but the large, vertically integrated monopolies and duopolies that have come to dominate the newspaper industry are more than just the consequence of the need to achieve economies of scale. Rather, it is the print medium’s physical inability to accommodate a many-to-many distribution model that plays the fundamental role in defining both the daily newspaper, and the institutional structure of the organizations that publish them.
Try to imagine a model in which dozens of local print journalists attempt to publish their daily product independent of each other, and it is easy to see why the newspaper became so necessary. Even if the costs were not prohibitive, print media consumers simply could not or would not endure the chore of browsing and acquiring their daily news from such a multitude of sources, one or two pages at a time. Now imagine disseminating national and international news along such a model, and it is easy to understand why, when print was the dominant or only medium, working journalists had no choice but to publish collectively. Whatever the broader economic factors, the medium itself demands a few-to-many or even one-to-many distribution model.
While there are many additional layers of institutional overhead necessary to publish a daily newspaper — news gathering, editorial, advertising sales, subscription sales, administration, etc. — it was this need to print and distribute paper that created the economic pressures from which this organizational structure evolved, and for which it is uniquely specialized. Born of the industrial age, and organized along its principles, the daily newspaper as an institution was built for print. And that is why the ongoing shift from print to digital presents such an existential crisis, for while the new media paradigm does not necessarily preclude the survival of large, vertically integrated news organizations, neither does it demand it… and there is absolutely no reason to expect that such organizations that do survive will look anything like those that publish the newspapers of today.
The problem for the industry is that, when newspaper executives talk about finding a sustainable new media business model, they are not as focused on the survival of the “newspaper” per se, electronic or otherwise, as they are on the survival of the institutions that publish them. And that is exactly the wrong starting point for re-imagining the future of newspapers in the Internet age.
To understand the profoundly subversive impact the Internet has on the newspaper industry, imagine again a model in which dozens of local journalists attempt to publish their daily product independent of each other, only this time in a market dominated by digital media rather than print. In fact, there’s no need to imagine it, it already exists.
While few working journalists would willingly surrender the comfort and security of a paycheck to pursue the entrepreneurial chaos of your typical full-time blogger, that sort of independence is now at least possible. Gone are the artificial constraints of the print medium: the few-to-many distribution model, and the enormous capital and operational expense. Indeed, these artifacts of the physical world no longer apply in a media universe where, with a click of a button, an independent journalist can post an article to a web site or an iPad app as easily as he might submit it to his editor for final approval. But the new opportunities the Internet makes possible for journalists are nothing compared to the newfound power of digital consumers to instantly search and browse humanity’s collective intellectual product from nearly anywhere in the world. And as for their impact on the future of newspapers, neither development compares to the revolutionary new ability of electronic media to target and distribute advertising in a way that was never imaginable in print.
Lacking a more precise vocabulary, we have come to refer to the web and app versions of our familiar dailies as “online-” or “electronic newspapers,” but this is clearly an oxymoron not just from a material perspective (”electronic” negates the need for “paper”), but arguably from an organizational one as well. For without the need to print and distribute physical paper, the newspaper as we know it is no longer necessary. And when the newspaper is no longer necessary, neither is much of the institutional structure of the organizations that publish them.
Coming up in Part II, we will examine the role of other segments of the traditional newspaper’s institutional overhead — editors, advertising, subscription sales, etc. — and explain why these too will wither away in the face of new technologies and changing patterns of media consumption. We will also briefly consider what kind of new institutions might replace the old.