June 20, 2009
Print circulation figures are down. Online figures are up. The web is also less expensive, more interactive and better suited for breaking news than its print brethren. News executives, not to mention a good number of pundits, count the dissimilarities as proof that the future of news is online, and a growing number of papers, including the Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News, and Seattle Post Intelligencer, are folding their print operations.
The industry wisdom is that the solution basically boils down to properly positioning oneself online. This, of course, assumes the public will remain interested in news; that only the format will change.
In fact news in web form doesn’t have the same hold on the collective imagination as news in print; people are finding other things to do online—twit, download music, social network, and pay their bills. Time spent on 17 of the 30 most-trafficked newspaper sites dropped last month, and the rest of the sites studied showed minimal if any gains, according to Nielsen Online data. This says nothing of the fact that most readers refuse to pay for online news.
News companies claim that readers don’t want to pay because they got used to getting it for free.
The truth is our willingness to pay for something is intrinsically tied to the pleasure we derive from it, and punching in our credit card number for the right to stare into a screen just doesn’t feel right. Indeed most of us find it difficult just to “settle into” news online, with its superhighways, flashing signs, links that lead to other links, all vying for our attention in a virtual dystopia that runs on forever. So why would we want to pay for it?
The pleasure factor also figures into why advertisers are proving loath to move online. They are all too aware that the common refrain about online ads is, “They’re annoying.” Not so for the average print ad. Put another way, we might stop to marvel at a car or handbag when we turn the page of a broadsheet; but popping up or flashing on our browser, it registers more as an intrusion, and most of us have trained our eyes not to notice it at all.
The discrepancy in pleasure—in the perception of value—of each medium suggests there’s nothing inevitable about the newspaper’s demise. Yet so far as I know, no major news company is seriously campaigning on behalf of print. An editor with the 144-year-old San Francisco Chronicle recently told me that the print edition has till fall to be profitable or it will fold—but no additional resources will be allocated to save the paper. 
This trend limits the newspaper’s possibilities, and left uncorrected, we will never know how long or healthily the paper could have lived.
The alternative is to devise a new business model. Of course even the best of these will ultimately require attracting readers, so might I offer a few ways the newspapers could get started.
They should use their powers of persuasion to convince us what’s right with newspapers. So much analysis has started from the premise of what’s wrong with them—they’re slower, more expensive, with less reach than the web. But they’re also easier to navigate: they’re tactile; we’re in control. Their physical limits stress quality over quantity. The conversations they tend to engender don’t consist of an article followed by trail of one-off comments. Newspapers are community pillars – bridges to the physical world, not abysses that fragment and truncate. And they don’t tend to make us feel glum, bored, irritated and tired the way staring at a computer screen does; there’s a certain satisfaction in feeling the pages and seeing the layout of the print edition.
It’s time they wittily communicate these things to us—through print, TV, panel discussions. Communicate to us what we’re missing. More basically, remind us that reading a newspaper is a small delight. It could be something as simple as an ad of someone flipping through a broadsheet on a blanket in a meadow (to challenge the bogus bliss of those ads showing people smiling into their laptops on mountaintops); or a mother and daughter fondly discussing an open paper over breakfast; or a businessman and his neighborhood news vendor making a friendly transaction.
While they’re at it, industry executives should have more faith in our youth. As San Francisco’s mayor recently noted, if newspapers disappear, “People under 30 won’t even notice.” News companies need to see it as their responsibility and theirs alone to change that. It’s time they start marketing to school children – renting space on the Cartoon network, on billboards around school, sponsoring teen celebrities (preferably literate ones). They could encourage Hollywood directors to depict the suave and influential reading them. Hey, if the 80s could become cool again, there’s no reason to believe newspapers can’t too.
News companies are right to try to adapt to the web; without a strong online presence they can’t possibly capitalize on the migration there. And yet it would be a fatal mistake to assume that people will always crave news and that the solution is merely a matter of transitioning online. As mentioned at the outset, news companies are failing to hold reader attention online, indicating that the medium itself –our relationship to it – influences the degree to which we will use it for a particular activity. Thus should they abandon the newspaper, rather than nurture it as a lifeline to the future, they may well not be a part of the future they’re preparing for.
 On September 5, 2009 the New York Times reported that it and the Wall Street Journal will soon introduce San Francisco Bay editions with greater emphasis on local news to “capitalize on the contraction of regional papers,” which would indicate that the papers are in basic agreement with the premise.