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Another reason to let newspapers die

Every once in awhile I come across a piece that precisely puts its finger on something I’ve been circling and gesturing toward for years. Such a piece is Cory Doctorow’s on the implications of “Close Enough for Rock ‘n Roll” and the Internet:

… rock ‘n’ roll is cheap, experimental and fluid, and devotes most of its energy into the production of music. Orchestral music is expensive, formal and majestic, but tithes a large portion of its effort to coordination and overheads and maintenance.

If the Internet has a motif, it is rock ‘n’ roll’s Protestant Reformation thrashing against the orchestral One Church. Rock ‘n’ roll gets lots of wee kirks built in every hill and dale in which parishioners can find religion in their own ways; choral music erects majestic cathedrals that humble and amaze, but take three generations of laborers to build.

He goes on to apply this framework to media businesses:

This is the pattern: doing something x percent as well with less-than-x percent of the resources. A blog may be 10 percent as good at covering the local news as the old, local paper was, but it costs less than 1 percent of what that old local paper cost to put out. A home recording studio and self-promotion may get your album into 30 percent as many hands, but it does so at five percent of what it costs a record label to put out the same recording.

And that, more than anything I’ve read previously, describes the future of media: Messy, fragmented, rarely-perfect, always interesting and exhilarating and new, always taking risks. In short, we’re on the cusp of something wonderful.


  1. Will wrote:

    It’s interesting how local news is playing out right now, though. The paper my wife edits is relatively small, completely ad-supported, non-subscription, and has an ultra-local format. They don’t publish any state, national, or international news that doesn’t have direct/explicit bearing on their circulation areas. They’ve managed to remain profitable while every other paper in the area goes belly-up with varying speeds. I think this is due to a number of things: Their income model, which sound a lot like how people make money on the internet; their small, generally ├╝ber-efficient staff; the fact that most of their readership still hand-writes letters to the editor or calls and asks for a fax number (despite the email address for the editor being plastered on nearly every page); and the fact that at this juncture, they aren’t really competing with the internet, unlike other news agencies. Certainly, there are blogs or PR pages on the web sites of local organizations that might cover some of the stuff they do, but the tech simply isn’t there to aggregate what information may be available in the same way. Eventually I have no doubt that the net will catch up and I’ll be able to hop on Google News and see all the worthwhile items that I’d see in their paper under my “Medina” column brought together from blogs, government sites, etc. But that day still seems a long way off, and for the time being, there are still papers the fill a niche that the net ignores, and until that changes, those papers will still be here.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 08:28 | Permalink
  2. pjk wrote:

    Yeah, I agree. The more niche you are, the better chance you have of surviving in the internet age, and local is the essence of niche. This is, by the way, one reason why the Wall Street Journal and The Economist continue to do well while everyone around them burns: They have very strong niches. I think the reason most newspapers are going down is because they had monopoly power in their market, got lazy, and started running general-audience national AP stories on their front pages. Obviously, these are the first ones the internet zaps.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 08:49 | Permalink
  3. John wrote:

    Agreed, all around. Another anecdote that illustrates this: the last daily I worked for was turning a 30% profit annually and doing great work covering the region. But it was a Knight Ridder paper, and we all know how that turned out. When it was sold, it went to local owners and, no longer part of a massive media holding company, it began to turn even more profit and it’s subscriptions increased steadily (as did its Web traffic).

    Often, it seems the problem is not that the Internet is destroying newspapers and making them unprofitable; the problem is that newspapers, once owned by local people or families, were bought by huge companies like Gannett and Knight Ridder. Shareholders of these corporations wanted massive returns that the papers, although profitable, could not sustain. Layoffs and buyouts at many large dailies began in the mid 1990s–long before the Internet was a threat to the industry. Now, of course, the Internet has changed things, but not to the degree that it necessarily makes newspapers somehow unable to turn a profit.

    The guy who created “The Wire,” David Simon, has said some of smart things about all this. Here’s a transcript of what he told a Senate subcommittee last year. It’s great:

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 14:04 | Permalink

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