Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Portrait of the Newspaper as a Dying Art

If he wasn't already, Johannes Gutenberg might just be rolling in his grave now.

In January, as the Associated Press reported on Monday, the world's oldest newspaper still in circulation ceased printing in favor of an online-only edition. While the Swedish newspaper — Post-och Inrikes Tidningar, which in English means "mail and domestic tidings" — is unlike many newspapers most Americans are accustomed to reading (it is published by a government agency and "runs legal announcements by corporations, courts and certain government agencies"), the decision to publish it only on the Internet is no less disturbing. Especially given its status as the oldest newspaper in the world, the move hints at an ugly future, if one at all, for the printed press. As AP writer Karl Ritter put it, "It's a fate, many ink-stained writers and readers fear, that may await many of the world's most venerable journals."

As if confirming that statement, the publisher of arguably the best and most important newspaper in the world offered some similar, and equally startling, sentiments of his own in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "I really don't know whether we'll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don't care either."

Though Eytan Avriel, the article's author, gives no indication of his tone (other than to call him a "stressed man"), one can only hope that Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times spoke those words with at least a touch of sarcasm. But overall, it's obvious he is leading the Times in a clear direction — to the Internet. "Sulzberger says the New York Times is on a journey that will conclude the day the company decides to stop printing the paper," writes Avriel. "That will mark the end of the transition."

Publishers like Sulzberger (those who should be fighting for the survival of newspapers, rather than be willing to abandon them), however, are headed down the wrong path. With the advent of radio came warnings of the imminent death of newspapers. They survived. So to with the arrival of television, and again newspapers survived. Now the threat comes from the Internet, but newspaper publishers seemed to forget the lessons of the past: a new medium does not automatically mean the end of older ones. Newspapers can certainly survive, but only if those who print them want them to — which seems less and less the case. It is unclear what the Internet will even look like or how it will be used or even if it will still exist in five, 10, 15 years. And yet, publishers are — some enthusiastically, others reluctantly — dumping most of their eggs into this medium riddled with questions and uncertainty. Instead, while using the popularity of the Web and its additional tools to help increase their readership and to help them tell better stories in more ways, publishers should also be searching for innovative and imaginative ways to make their newspapers relevant again — financially and otherwise.

But most are not. Most seem content with defeat, content that the Internet will supplant the need for the printed press. In fact, the World Association of Newspapers, which ranks the oldest newspapers in circulation, still has Post-och Inrikes Tidningar atop its list despite the publication's complete transformation from print to online. "An online newspaper is still a newspaper, so we'll leave it on the list," said Larry Kilman, a spokesman for the Paris-based association. In many ways, this is an attitude that has so endangered the print medium. While the online world affords many benefits to news providers and consumers, by no means are the two synonymous. Hans Holm, who served as the chief editor of the aforementioned Swedish newspaper for 20 years, had it right when he said, "We think it's a cultural disaster."

Your Thoughts
Will newspapers survive the threat from the Internet (if so, how?), or will we see more and more of them publish online-only versions in lieu of print editions? What do you think the Web will be in the next five, 10, 15 years?

1 comment:

Michael said...

Let The Times jump ship. As long as there are places, and people live in them, there will be a need for locally oriented newspapers. Nothing beats portability -- or the surprise you get from picking up the morning paper and reading a headline/story that you would not have otherwise sought on the Web. I can't wait until all corporations have dropped papers; they should leave us alone already and let us do our damn work.