That’s something that I am frequently asked. Usually, the question is presented with at least a trace of anxiety – not so dissimilar to asking how Aunt Martha, who you know has been ill, is doing these days and hoping that the answer is not that she died, or worse. You see, and one cannot miss the irony, with all the bad press that newspapers and print in general have been getting, it would be surprising if this angst did not exist.
So I’ll tell you what I believe – the abridged version.
The almost-depression has hurt everyone. Very few businesses have escaped. Newspapers obviously have been no exception. They, as with most of the rest of the economy, have cycled down in this massive low tide. To a very great degree, the “problem” with newspapers has been as much of a “bad economy” problem as it has been an industry-specific issue. With a rising economic tide, most businesses - including newspapers, at least those still standing - should substantially recover.
I believe that the worst is behind us. However, I frequently run into people who don’t agree. Yes, unemployment is still hovering around 10 percent; growth is still anemic; and foreclosures are still on the rise in many parts of the country – including Atlanta. Who can argue with that? No one. That being said, I usually remind those folks that about a year-and-a-half ago, the world banking system was on the verge of a complete collapse. There was no credit available to anyone. General Motors, Chrysler, Lehman Brothers and AIG, just to name a few, were insolvent. We were on the edge of a precipice that could have made the Great Depression seem relatively mild. But we did not fall off the cliff. Central governments around the world poured money into their economies, and much of the credit crisis – at least the worst of it – passed. Is our “condition” better now than a year-and-a-half ago? Absolutely, who can argue with that?
So, getting back to newspapers…what about the Internet? Well, the short version is that the Internet is still taking only a relatively small percentage of overall advertising revenue, but it is increasing. Newspapers have lost several primary categories of business to the Internet, including much of their classifieds. The newspaper industry still has a number of very big cards, including a delivery system that successfully competes with the post office; ultra-high market penetration by geography in many cases; the ability to brand products; and most importantly, the local news franchise which has not yet made it to prime time on the Internet. That is to say, newspapers still have a lot of bullets in their chambers that cannot be written off or discounted quite yet. To quote Mark Twain, “rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated.”
When I try to figure out what is going on in the media world right now, I see many strong currents going in a number of different directions. It is difficult to predict the impact of those forces, or guess exactly what it means today or tomorrow. The Internet is growing at an explosive rate, yet that very growth creates huge problems, including fragmentation and credibility.
The primary flaw in the Internet as a news source is that you usually don’t know if the information that you are reading is accurate or reliable, because, in most cases, the source of the news or information is not accountable for the veracity of the content which they posted. That is a deal killer for information masquerading as real news.
I have very deep reservations about the eventual viability of the Internet as a vehicle for the dissemination of “news” as we know it right now – vetted, professionally written, accountable and produced at a profit. Yes, the news can be reported on the Internet and disseminated very cheaply, but can it be monetized enough to cover costs? I am not sure it can. And if it indeed is possible, it’s my bet that the solution would probably involve a man named Jobs and something called “micro-payments” via another thing called “iTunes”.
In summary, one cannot fail to note that the number of channels of information, including “news-channels” on the Internet, is almost unlimited and virtually free - as are the opportunities to use those channels for advertising. Everybody becomes a publisher, and the amount of content on the Internet keeps exploding. As powerful as “search” is, it may fail in creating enough order on the Internet to keep it viable in terms of news. And if that is true, then it may just be possible that your old-fashioned newspaper, printed with ink on paper, written by professional journalists who are accountable for their content, and delivered by hand to your home may just be around for a while longer.