As I was digging around the archives of economist.com not long ago for something I’ve since forgotten, I came across this haunting warning about the the threat to newspapers posed by the Internet.
It was published exactly 10 years ago this week, and like many people in my industry, I was oblivious to all this. This is behind a pay wall, but here are a few snippets that underline how correct nearly every prediction in this story has come to be so very true:
“The Internet, however, will prove more than a new distribution channel for news. It is going to undermine the economics that underpins the newspaper business.”
As Craigslist was beginning to make a splash, one of the pillars of the newspaper business model was already crumbling:
“Without classified advertising, most newspapers would find it hard to survive; and classified is the bit of the bundle that is most vulnerable to the Internet.”
So much for vaunted notion of “unique local content” that newspapers could really have staked out for themselves:
“The successful communities on the Internet, places such as Geocities and theglobe, divide people not by region but by interest—in music, say, or food, or homosexual sex. The Internet’s defining characteristic is that it brings together people whom geography has kept apart. If people want to gather in local groups, a neighbourhood bar has many advantages over the Internet.”
“Print can help to promote websites; websites can create value for companies with declining old-media assets. But print-based businesses are likely to go on shrinking nonetheless. And for lots of local newspapers, heavily dependent on classified advertising, there may not be a solution at all: they will most likely vanish, like horse-drawn streetcars, from the scene.”
My former newspaper, like many at the time, was rolling in lucrative profits. These were the days of unlimited news holes, travel budgets and extravagant plans for maxing out on both of them. We had been used to this for most of ’90s in the run-up to the 1996 Summer Olympics. It was a magnificent thrill, a nearly decade-long adrenaline rush that was hard to tamp down.
Even if I had been told that good times wouldn’t last, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. We were partying like it was 1999 because, well, it was.
As this story was published, I was completing the most memorable assignment of my career: the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The two niche sports I had specialized in covering — soccer and women’s athletics — had converged rather nicely.
How fitting that it is being seen now in some corners as something of a fleeting moment. It was around the time that the ambitions of newspapers like mine had reached a plateau, although I understand this now only in retrospective.
• At the same time, grave threats to the future of business were being forecast. “The Cluetrain Manifesto” also was published 10 years ago, predicting the broad business landscape was on the verge of implosion:
“We are so desperate to have our voices back that we are willing to leap into the void. We embrace the Web not knowing what it is, but hoping that it will burn the org chart — if not the organization — down to the ground.”
• A year ago this week, I finally took that declaration to heart when my newspaper offered me, among dozens of others, a buyout package, as the industry continued to burn itself down to the ground. Whatever voice I had developed as a journalist for more than two decades had been beaten down and flattened out with the release of new org chart after new org chart. I had forgotten, or just buried in my mind, the reasons why I wanted to be in this profession. That really unnerved me.
So I decided to leap into the void. I’m still coming to grips with what the Web is, and what my future on it will be like. My whole world started to change a year ago this week, and all I know for sure is that the upheaval is permanent.