For anyone in or around the industry, it’s been the unavoidable question of the last few years: How can we save newspapers?
It hasn’t always been put in those exact terms, of course. Just two years ago I was taught that newspapers simply needed to reduce expectations and realize that high margins were no longer possible. The monopoly was gone, but the fundamentals, as it were, remained strong.
We now know that they are not. Journalistically, perhaps, the fundamentals are unchanged—though even that is a debatable statement. But the business model on which that journalism depends could not be weaker.
And so, as papers fold and quarterly reports grow grim, print media tread on uncertain ground. And the question is: What’s to be done to save them? But it’s a misleading question, one that assumes newspapers in their current form should be saved.
Much has already been written on the subject, with the short-sighted looking for increasingly unrealistic ways to preserve newspapers. And there’s the problem, as the forward-thinking have realized: Newspapers don’t need saving—it’s journalism that does.
Journalism itself is independent of any medium. It exists as ink on a page, pixels on a screen, sound in the air—but it is not really any of those things. New means of communicating will develop, and journalism will follow. Saving newspapers for the sake of journalism couldn’t make less sense. Claiming that newspapers need preserving assumes that, through new technology, journalism can’t be made better.
What then of the news organizations behind the newspapers? Perhaps, one might say, they’re worth saving.
Again, that’s a bit disingenuous. Is it even possible to save those news organizations as they are? To date, that’s been nearly impossible. Revenue from the print side has withered, and news organizations, bloated and overreaching, have been unable to support themselves with meager Web revenues.
Newspapers as they are cannot survive on the Web. They’re too large, too unfocused, too general. Look at the successful, independent web publications of the day, and you’ll find they are everything newspapers are not: small, hyper-focused and reader-driven. More importantly, though, there is no pay wall, which many newspaper publishers see, however wrongheadedly, as the answer to their woes.
So here’s where we are: Newspapers—the physical products—have little hope of surviving as they are. The same holds for the news organizations that publish them. They just aren’t viable in an age when the day’s news can be had instantly, for free, from any number of Web publications. Magazine publishers, living in their world of niches, have long known that general-interest news is incredibly hard to monetize—you don’t see many newsweeklies today for a reason.1
But it’s a lesson that newspapers are only now learning. What, then, is the future of printed news?
Print as a medium need not die, and I certainly hope it doesn’t. Printed products do many things far better than their digital equivalents. But to survive, print does need to reinvent itself.
Before long, all content will be digitized and available for download cheaply, if not for free. And why shouldn’t it? Digital content is cheaper to distribute, infinitely reproducible, instantly available, searchable—the list of advantages grows long, and will only grow longer as devices and experiences improve. But there will always be something missing, I think, when you’re not holding in your hands a physical, purchased good, and that difference, that experience, is to be exploited. Bits on a hard drive or pixels on a screen—they’re fleeting, gone with the press of a button. A beautiful print product resists that pull.
Jesse Thorn: One time your husband [Dave Eggers] came to one of my college classes, and somebody asked him, “I want to start a magazine. What should I do?” And his two pieces of advice were, (1) don’t start a magazine, it’s not worth it, and the (2) was make sure that you can pay for the magazine with the price of the magazine rather than having to rely on advertisers. […]
It seems to me as though one of the elements of this plan is to create something that has more of a lasting value. A lot of periodicals are designed to be very much of the moment, and it seems like you designed it to be of the opposite.
Vendela Vida: My favorite thing that someone said to me once about The Believer was that it was the hardest magazine for him to recycle. And I like that, because we do try to make it more like a literary journal that you want to keep on your shelves and not something that comes in the mail and you throw out the next week. And part of that longevity does stem from the fact that because we’re not timely or relevant or anything like that you don’t need to throw it out when the week comes to an end. It’s not going to tell you what to do on Saturday night or what book came out this week, and so there is something that has more of a lasting appeal, to me at least, about it.
That, I think, is the future of print in a digital world. It won’t work for every publication or every type of content, but that’s OK—it doesn’t have to, not with the Web and e-readers available as publishing platforms.
Print media can’t compete with the Web as a means of publishing simple information and news, nor should it be so. To be successful, print products—newspapers, magazines, books and anything in between—must make use of the medium and offer something that can’t be duplicated online or on an eight-inch screen: something beautifully made, worth keeping (as much for the content as the design) and thus worth paying for. Offer anything else and you’re competing against a platform that trumps you, or soon will, in almost every way. But make something awesome, and people will pay for it.
For traditionally printed publications, this new model means radical changes. No more dumping content verbatim from one medium to another, or relying on one to subsidize the other. Daily newspapers will disappear: the news of the day moves exclusively to the newspaper website2, while a lavish print product is published once a week or twice a month, perhaps, filled with content much like that soon to appear in the McSweeney’s newspaper prototype:
Issue 33 of McSweeney’s Quarterly will be a one-time-only, Sunday-edition sized newspaper—the San Francisco Panorama. It’ll have news (actual news, tied to the day it comes out) and sports and arts coverage, and comics (sixteen pages of glorious, full-color comics, from Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and Art Spiegelman and many others besides) and a magazine and a weekend guide, and will basically be an attempt to demonstrate all the great things print journalism can (still) do, with as much first-rate writing and reportage and design (and posters and games and on-location Antarctic travelogues) as we can get in there. Expect journalism from Andrew Sean Greer, fiction from George Saunders and Roddy Doyle, dispatches from Afghanistan, and much, much more.
For print, it’s a reduced role, to be sure, but the Web cannot be stopped in its reinvention of journalism. As soon as publishers realize that fact—and start taking advantage of it—we’ll see productions on each side that are greatly improved and better suited to their mediums and the media landscape today.