In the early 1990s I had a disturbing conversation with Nathan Myhrvold, then Microsoft’s chief futurist. Myhrvold was talking about how online technology would “disintermediate” commerce. When it comes to media, the term by its very definition suggests the breakdown of mass media. Newspapers, Myhrvold surmised, would be one of disintermediation’s biggest casualties.
What Myhrvold meant by disintermediation was the removal of gatekeeping functionality, or middle men, between purveyor and consumer. The interactivity of online meant users could select for themselves what to read. They didn’t need reporters and editors deciding what was important for them. A company or official didn’t need newspapers either; they could reach their constituents or customers directly (e.g. MyObama and iGoogle). Most of all, readers had no need for a physical product delivered to their doorstep.
Myhrvold, one of the smartest guys at what was then one of the smartest companies, made it sound as if the death of newspapers was right around the corner. But change is always further off than one initially imagines. It’s also true that change, when it happens, seems to do so all at once. The forces leading to a change, ignored for so long, are forgotten; we’re left feeling blind-sided even if we saw it coming and warned of it for years. This helps explain why someone like Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen could say with perfect honesty that he was “shocked” by the P-I’s announcement of sale and probably shutdown. Sure he was shocked. We all were. But were we surprised? (Today Myhrvold hunts dinosaur bones and was featured in a recent New Yorker profile by Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell. He probably has forgotten all about disintermediation.)
For all Myhrvold’s foresight and my own trepidations over the years, I was shocked as well. As a lifelong journalist (I started at The Seattle Times in 1967), I hate to see the P-I go — not just for its own sake but for its implications for The Times, Seattle, and an informed society. The P-I is just the first shoe to drop. Even the most casual reading of any newspaper, containing page after page of adless or ad-shy layout, reveals an unsustainable business proposition. I’m very worried about The New York Times, which I still get delivered to my doorstep and prefer reading over breakfast with my wife. It’s a vital ritual for us; we have our best conversations reading the paper, a process that reaffirms why we love each other and how much our intellectual lives revolve around knowledge of the day. (Admittedly I also notice how we’re calling out to each other more and more from our laptops, “Hey, did you see this on HuffPo?”) I know that it’s costing The New York Times a whole lot more to get its paper to me than I’m paying for the privilege; I just heard the paper is considering going to three deliveries a week instead of daily.
Although I sensed Myhrvold was right, for years I figured newspapers could transition to online if they just did a few things right. Now I’m not sure anything would have worked. Not only are newspapers dying, the type of “news” they purvey — uninterpreted, blandly regurgitated, pre-spun information supplied and shaped by a stakeholder with the intent of policy manipulation — has lost its relevance as well. Just look where the growth in news is — Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, Huffington Post — and you get the idea. Journalism today is a process of un-newsing the news.
Un-newsed news is far more diverse, granular and decentralized than anything a single newspaper could provide, offline or on. On any given day I get a lot of great journalism by way of mailing lists, blogs, RSS feeds, Google news, Twitter and other Web mechanisms. It’s true, a lot of it is derivative, originating with mass media. But a growing amount is not. Where two or three years ago there was hardly anything that could not be traced to a newspaper story or broadcast, today my “news” is at least 50 percent created from what might be termed uncredentialed journalists doing original reporting and commentary. This material contains self-tailored content which would never make a newspaper’s pages: neighborhood issues, progressive politics, technology, bicycling, animal rights. Far too insidery or niche for newspapers, it nonetheless qualifies as journalism in the sense it is topical, informative, and seeks to change the status quo or right a wrong. It’s my news, obtained my way.
The flip to un-news has contributed worlds more to newspapers’ decline than, say, Craigslist (the favorite news executives’ whipping post). The news I get from newspapers, especially local, has to do mostly with crime, sports and weather events. It is aimed at some lowest common denominator that probably no longer exists. It’s an approach that worked when news was what newspapers said it was, end of story. In the limitless smorgasbord of the Web, the reader gets to define news.
The prevailing theory for years was that newspapers could simply adjust to the changing dynamic and segue online with barely a hiccup. The cliched metaphor was to compare the newspaper business to railroads. If railroads had realized they were in the transportation business, they would have gotten into airlines. Ah, if only business were that simple. I think more of the typewriter, which tried everything it could to stay relevant with the advent of the personal computer. Remember electric typewriters with little LCD screens? Technology, not lack of enterprise, did in typewriters. By the time a business realizes it is toast, it’s too late.
In the late 1990s, The Times’ executive editor Mike Fancher famously said that if anyone was going to cannibalize The Times, it would be The Times. This was about the time myself and others began warning about Craigslist. Last summer I asked another Times executive (who was complaining about Craigslist) what happened to self-cannibalization. The response: What were we supposed to do? Refuse the money (from classifieds)?
If newspapers are to become airlines instead of railroads, what exactly should they be doing? It’s entirely unclear. The business model for newspapers is to provide content based on a geographically defined constituency. Seattle readers will read a Seattle newspaper because they identify with their home town. Unfortunately, geography translates poorly to the Web. Instead, Web users identify by affinity: Hobbies, ideology, culture. News is information governed by mutual interest, not where someone lives. Sports fans are a prime example. Their interest in a sport, say football, can gravitate on the Web to any team. The team where they grew up, or went to college, or just happen to serendipitously like. The “home team” is a subset of their life experience with the sport.
In an affinity group, news is organic, a default of social interaction. There is no lowest common denominator. The newspapers of the Web are Facebook and MySpace and YouTube and Twitter — and, of course, blogs. (HuffPo, a primarily political site, calls itself the newspaper of the Web.) You can argue, in fact, that the Internet itself is the newspaper of today.
Then there’s the problem of news as a business on the Web. Implicit in disintermediation is a lot of revenue just plain disappearing. (Myhrvold’s most famous prediction was that long distance phone calls, a huge phone company revenue source, would essentially become free.) Facebook et al don’t make their money from news aggregation but from social interaction. Blogs don’t make much money at all (compared to newspapers’ historical margins).
As for who does make money from news on the Web, I’ve long argued that fabulously wealthy Google, which makes money off search derived in great part from newspaper content, should share revenues with content providers. How uncapitalist of me. But it seems that if newspapers and magazines and books go away, Google won’t have content worth searching. The same holds true for other original content Google crawls, even blogs. The company that makes the most money off content produces no content of its own. Google’s motto is Do No Evil; I wish it were Don’t Be Greedy.
Raising this issue some time back in a televised forum, I got hooted down by the panel (including Dan Gillmor, the original newspaper blogger) who suggested that any attempt by newspapers to extract revenue from Google would violate antitrust laws, because newspapers are a monopoly. Even if that were true then, it’s ludicrous today. Monopolies don’t lose millions of dollars each month ($14 million for the P-I last year) or put themselves up for sale. Meanwhile, what company these days does come to mind re the M word? If you don’t know the answer, try a Google search.
One might say newspapers should see themselves as not in the news business but in the content business. Except that content online is not really much of a business (for anyone but Google). Until that changes, newspapers are doomed to be the trains and typewriters of the digital age.