Friday, November 13, 2009

The Future (of the news) is Now

We've been hearing a lot lately about the impending demise of the mainstream news media. Newspapers around the country are failing or in big trouble, including some of the premier names. Ditto for the major (American) newsmagazines and even the network TV news divisions. It is true that businesses--even whole industries-- come and go. But many people fear that the decline of news organizations could leave us without an important check on government corruption, abuse, and oppression.


Most commentators are blaming the Internet for these changes. Craigslist allows anyone to post for free the kind of classified ads they once had to pay a newspaper to print. Google News allows anyone to browse the stories from news sites around the world. And many papers themselves put their content on the web for free. Certainly the Internet has already changed the music industry and seems poised to change television and the movies. Why should newspapers be immune?


But there's one type of news source that no one seems much worried about even though it faces intense pressure from the internet: celebrity news. While the Great Recession has taken a toll on even the venerable People Magazine, this area of news seems vibrant and healthy. It seems that because celebrity news isn't considered "important news" by the traditional media, no one has spent much time wondering what it might have going for it.


First off, millions of people actually find celebrity news to be interesting enough that they're willing to shell out money for it. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people just aren't that willing to pay for news about corruption in City Hall. They may be glad that the newspaper is out there exposing it, but they'd rather not shell out to read about it. Lack of interest isn't created by Craigslist or Google News. More likely it's created by Facebook and Twitter and the bazillion other things that people have to entertain themselves with. Competition for our attention spans has never been spread over a wider spectrum o media: live performances, print, radio, television, movies, gaming platforms, Internet websites, cellphones, cellphone apps, and on and on.


But there are those who are still interested in the news and willing to put down the game controller long enough to read a magazine or newspaper. So far, however, the traditional news media hasn't been very creative in thinking about when and where to reach them. Where do most people buy their celebrity magazines? At the checkout stand. You're standing there in line and you see an intriguing cover. Jumping online to TMZ.com isn't an option in the grocery store line (at least not just yet) and so the magazine has you. The downside to this approach is that People and the like don't have a lot of steady subscribers. But the upside is that they have found a way to position themselves in a time and place that works for them.


Now think about your local newspaper. It probably gets delivered to your door every morning (or it would if you actually subscribed to it). When you wake up in the morning do you want to sit down and read the paper with your coffee like grandpa used to? Or are you checking your Blackberry and looking up what the morning commute is like right now? If you drive to work you cannot safely or efficiently read the newspaper (no, seriously, you cannot read and drive, yes I mean you). Would your boss approve if the first 30 minutes of your day was spent reading the newspaper? Finish your workday, drive home, put the kids to bed and all you want to do it watch some entertaining TV.


The newspaper is obsolete. The general interest news magazine is obsolete. This is not something that will happen in the future--this has already happened. A generation has grown to adulthood without the habit of reading the paper in the morning. No amount of handwringing will change this back. Although it's dangerous to generalize from one's personal experience, the way I interact with the news is drastically different from the way I did when I was in college. I used to subscribe to the paper Wall Street Journal. I now read it only online, along with the New York Times. But I also use Google Reader to subscribe to a number of blogs and news feeds (including a couple of blogs by the Wall Street Journal). On my walk to work each morning I listen to podcasts from NPR and the Economist, but also to recorded speeches from my former law school and elsewhere. Today I was listening to Alan Greenspan speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations about the financial crisis--a speech which I'm not even sure I saw reported anywhere. And perhaps worst of all from the perspective of my local newspaper, lately I've taken to picking up a free copy of the political newspaper Politico. While most of the country can get Politico only online, actual paper is given away free in the DC area. I take it to my desk and peruse it each morning it's printed. But it's short and focused and relevant.


I'm a news junkie and yet my local newspaper, the venerable Washington Post, is not in the mix. I don't have time to read the physical paper; the website is poorly designed and frustrating to use; the blogs I followed for a while were uninteresting; and the podcasts nonexistent as far as I know. If there are great blogs or podcasts why isn't the Post doing a better job of letting me know they're out there? I get a letter every month urging me to buy a subscription to a format I'm unlikely ever to go back to. And I like newspapers, I genuinely miss getting the physical object. I remember from my earliest days seeing my dad at the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the paper and thinking, "this is what grownups do." I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal as a senior in high school and read every single issue (really) for 15 years. But my nostalgia isn't strong enough for me to go back to a traditional newspaper subscription and I doubt that nostalgia will be a viable business model for the newspapers.


I don't have all the answers and maybe I don't have any. But the traditional media had better recognize that you cannot save something which is already extinct. If anyone in my generation ought to be reading a newspaper, it's me. But I've moved on. My children won't even know that there was something to be nostalgic about. We so readily and condescendingly accept that factory workers displaced by globalization need "job training" and "new skills." Why should white collar reporters be immune. Buy a Flip video camera and make us a video, get a decent microphone (actually, shell out for an excellent one) and make us a podcast. Do it now. Do it like your future depends on it.

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