Kvetch of the Week: Lively talk about the death of newspapers

We here in the Life After Newspapers wing of the journalistic set were doing just fine following our New Year’s resolution to keep looking ahead when a couple of comets streaked across the fog-shrouded media sky, reviving a discussion about the impending death of newspapers that simply refuses to die:

How newspaper domos tried to do something with the Web a long time ago. Then just gave up.

Why even the New York Times may be on a respirator.

These provocations, plus a quite frank and lucid take on the newspaper industry by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, have had the journosphere on absolute fire this week. All of which makes choosing this week’s Kvetch of the Week incredibly difficult. But not as difficult, obviously, as untangling many of the arguments raised about how to take forward the work that journalists do.

The Economist
The Economist (1999)

From the print-is-dead fraternity:

Newspapers aren’t worth writing about, much less reading.

Figure something else now, you ink-stained wretches, or die.

Pulse! Pulse! I’m not getting a pulse!

Go ahead, die already!

To the wait-just-a-minute lobby:

I want a second opinion. Stat!

Queen Arianna’s bag of aggregated magic fairy dust doesn’t hold the cure.

Will you remember me when I’m gone?

As someone with feet in either camp, and finding grains of truth all around the horn (as well as plenty of bluster), I find this discussion endlessly fascinating and important. There’s less kvetching here than sober, heartfelt analysis, oversimplified by some snarky headline rewriting I’m truly trying to get out of my system. I’ve got more Deadspin in my veins than I’m willing to admit.

For sheer kvetchiness, however, it will be hard to top comments by Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of its Wharton Interactive Media Initiative. Tormented about the state of newspapers? Not this week’s Kvetch of the Week:

“It’s fair to say that newspapers will disappear and I don’t think we should shed that big a tear for them. My kids can’t imagine why anyone would read the newspaper.

the-ventures-exitos-de-oro-de-291038
Walking, not running, toward the apocalypse?

“The kooky luxury boutique item will exist in a niche form for a long, long, long, time, until our generation fades away. Some people still like vinyl records.”

Don’t you just love the certitude of tenured Ivy League types who’ve never had to worry about layoffs or making deadlines? Nice.

Hey, I adore my iPod, and wonder why the hell I never got one when I was a traveling sportswriter. But there’s nothing like dusting off a shiny black slab of musical goodness and listening to its crackling sounds on the Victrola.

I mean this a bit tongue-in-cheek (sorry for all the multiple hyphenations in this post) and it points to where I think the conversation, and the action, needs to be: How to blend the best of the print tradition with the speed and vitality of the Web. It isn’t that these media commentators and others aren’t interested in this, but that quite often their cataclysmic pronouncements get in the way of just getting on with it. Too often the tone is lamenting the tradeoffs, instead of figuring out how to whip up a workable journalistic mashup for the future.

So I was encouraged when Martin Langeveld, the proprietor of the excellent News After Newspapers site, pointed to a post that distills so much of what has been missing from the conversation. Great, not just good, journalism can and must thrive on the Web, and all of us vested in this profession must help ensure that:

“What is needed is a way to drive massive traffic to the things that deserve it most: that future Pulitzer Prize winner, for instance, rather than yet another piece of fluff.

“The responsibility for doing so doesn’t rest entirely on news companies. Individual news writers, also, must learn to write stories that draw the attention of many readers.

“But what healthy news organizations should really be offering this new breed of capable writers is a sort of insurance against unsuccessful articles consisting of an up-front payment for any piece of writing. The rest of the writer’s income should come from performance earnouts — another formula that is yet to be mastered. Keeping it to those basics would be a radical change from the wage-based compensation model of print, along with its sprawling hierarchy of editors and publishers, costly offices, expense reports and support staff. When that world meets the internet’s stripped-down operating model, there may well be money for good journalism again.

“In truth, the audience for intelligent writing (and other art forms) is rapidly growing. The challenge is simply in figuring out the particulars. Maybe the organization to do so will be the next version of the Times; maybe it will be a group of independent journalists. But it will certainly happen.

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4 thoughts on “Kvetch of the Week: Lively talk about the death of newspapers

  1. I believe that Mr. Fader’s conclusion about the demise of newspapers, based upon the observation that his kids do not understand why anyone would want to read one is pretty weak. When I was a kid I thought I had all the answers, too, but fortunately I had parents who realized I might not have known all of the questions. Of course I realize that the statement is meant to be a slap at people who don’t agree, based upon the premise that “it’s so obvious even a kid can gets it.” Sorry Mr. Fader, but like my folks, I don’t think your kids are aware of all the questions just yet, either.
    And just as an aside, doesn’t his fall back to relying upon his kids to give credibility to his arguement sound similar to something President Carter said in a “Playboy” interview in 1976 when he consulted with his daughter Amy about foreign policy? As I remember, people were skeptical then about relying upon the wisdom coming from the mouths of little babes, just as I am skeptical now.

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  2. I’m encouraged by your post. I think the part that resonates the most with me is:

    “I think the conversation, and the action, needs to be: How to blend the best of the print tradition with the speed and vitality of the Web.”

    That’s really the key. Google news and Yahoo news and much of the blogosphere relies on traditional media to fill it. People are seeking information more today than in years past.

    That’s good news for journalists in the long run if we, as you says, merge the best of print with “speed and vitality of the Web.”

    I, for one, don’t want to imagine a world without journalism in some form. I think for many Americans, newspapers (whether in print or online) are like the Post Office: They wouldn’t really think of their value until they’re gone. At least, I hope so.

    Also, love Martin Langeveld’s idea of changing the “sprawling hierarchy of publishers and editors” and using “performance earnouts” for writers.

    I, too, am not sure how that would work. But I think radical change is needed. We need to think in new ways.

    Good post.

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  3. Thanks for the comments. There’s been so much hand-wringing about what either platform is missing journalistically, so I wanted the final portion of my post to reflect that it doesn’t have to be either/or. I firmly believe that, and it’s a topic I’m sure many of us will be revisiting frequently in the coming months.

    For as weary as I get hearing newspaper traditionalists bemoan what might be lost as print declines, neither am I enamored with Web media gurus who think journalists ought to be satisfied working cheaply, if not for free.

    This stuff is going to have to be paid for if it’s to be any good, and I’m hopeful that when the economy improves there will be funders who will be willing to do just that.

    A new online news venture I’m a part of has a revenue-sharing plan at the heart of its compensation package. Now’s the time to start experimenting with entrepreneurial models and I’m glad to see Martin not just allude to it, but offer concrete possibilities.

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