The Death of Newspapers or a Rebirth?

In the last several years we have been hearing the death knell of newspapers, (and books) as the primary mechanism of informational and knowledge delivery. Bloggers (our modern day Benjamin Franklins), wiki’s and web pages, are storming the bastion of the 4th Estate and would seem to be on the verge of overwhelming, or at the very least altering it. The Internet has been the primary cause of this paradigm shift; it has changed the culture but more importantly the informational pedagogies. This blog touches upon whether newspapers are really going to die (some would say that their bodies are already traversing the river Styx) and be taken over (or replaced) by websites such as the Huffington Post (known as the HuffPo). I don’t know the answers (nobody does) but there is a possibility that newspapers can find a form of Brahmanian reincarnation, ironically of all places, in the digital world.

In the 2009 January/February addition of Atlantic Monthly an article (End Times, by Michael Hirschorn) described the current dismal state of the New York Times (the flagship of American newspapers) and other newspaper stalwarts:

“The thinking goes that existing brands–The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal–will be the ones making that transition, challenged but still dominant as sources of original reporting. But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business–like this May?”

With more than $1 Billion in debt, $46 million in cash reserves (as of October) and $400 million in debt coming due, it seems that Wall Street Investment firms and banks aren’t the only bankrupt entities in New York. It is very plausible that the NYT will cease to exist or have to change its structure dramatically (such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette deciding it will no longer be delivering print additions beyond a certain radius) or it may just come back as a digital newspaper selling off its other assets to pay off its creditors. The NYT isn’t the only financially strapped paper (Seattle Times, The Tribune Company, and countless others are in similar circumstances). Regardless, the coming year will be froth with change in the newspaper world. So, with the impending doom and gloom, is there a chance for newspapers to survive?  The possibility is remote but if they do survive, it will be because they are willing to leverage the power of their brand names while adopting new informational models.

What do I mean by this? Simply that major newspapers have something blogs and other Web 2.0 generated entities do not provide, name recognition and continuity. The NYT bridges the gap of paper and digital. People are more comfortable believing something that used to be in paper and that now is in digital. Linguistically, the NYT and other major newspapers have already framed and controlled the argument of validity by having their names equating with some aspect of truth, because of that very same longevity and continuity.

This leads many people to associate the NYT as a concrete symbol of truth, which really espouses what I call, “truth of fact.” Truth of fact is the ability to cognitively create a culturally belief in which an entity can be trusted to report an existence of an event, person, place or thing. It doesn’t mean that it can tell us causality or how factually true every aspect of such a report may be, just that what it reports happened or that it exists. (Now some people will argue that it can do both, I will not argue this point.) It also has created an organic relationship with society as opposed to a simply positivistic one. The new forms of newspapers (blogs) cannot create in a matter of a few years, what took newspapers decades. So, what are we left with?

In order to survive, newspapers more than likely will move completely over to digital and cut off their more expensive paper editions (the nytimes.com is already one of the top 5 online news sources). Once they move their revenue generating to web advertisements and devote themselves to a complete web product, most large newspapers will do fine, granted probably in a much smaller scale.  This in many ways is a good thing, as newspapers will be forced to concentrate on quality reporting, such as investigative news (that really no longer exists). News bloggers I believe will come to resemble free-lance reporters (if they don’t already), who will benefit from the name recognition of being associated with a major newspaper.  By becoming reliable and trustworthy news sources, some bloggers will enjoy the elevated status that comes with seeing their story linked from the NYT home page or any other major paper. In addition, (with out sounding conspiratorial) I would not be surprised if major news outlets will not be treated with some preference by large search engines.

Now none of this may happen and we could be left with no newspapers. However, if such a scenario were to occur, I don’t believe we would have information news anarchy for very long. People and society tend to strive for some level of order in all things. The new technology is causing a development of tension, which will not be resolved with out some societal transformation. It happened before in our history with the introduction of the car, radio, and television. How this societal change will play out is anyone’s guess, but as an archivist, I look forward to seeing how we not only preserve the old but how we deal with the new information mechanisms.