Sorry, newspapers are dying…

…but that doesn’t mean that news is.

Monday’s episode of The Daily Show featured an interview with Walter Isaacson, the managing editor of TIME magazine and president of the Aspen Institute. He talked about his recent cover story for TIME and, specifically, what print has to offer that the internet doesn’t. I’d cite the original article, but I don’t subscribe to magazines anymore. Have a look:

Authors and editors in traditional media seem to possess a habitual dearth of perspective when it comes to the Internet. Isaacson seems like an extremely intelligent and qualified guy, but he’s fallen pray to that same lack of objectivity.

Newspapers are really a type of content delivery. Many people buy these publications for only one or two items therein (“Hand me the Sports section.”). The reason circulation is dropping is because, as a method of content delivery, any one newspaper is essentially competing with the entire Internet. Why buy a large stack of dirty newsprint for a few pages of classified ads when you can browse all of Craigslist for free?

Without auxiliary content like classified ads and comics to support it, news has to prove its worth on its own. Opinion and investigatory pieces do a fairly good job of this; it’s obvious to many consumers that the execution of the work is unique to the content creator and, as a result, of value. More expository, journalistic reporting is less quantifiable because, when executed correctly, it is the mere expression of facts. I would guess that most Americans feel we have an innate right to hear the truth. Ergo, we regard factual statements, without direct ownership owed to any one content creator, as a public service.

Amazon Kindle 2Isaacson defends the value of news by comparing it to music on the iTunes store. If songs cost 99ยข, why not news articles? This argument rings of absurdity. The world didn’t join hands one day and decide in perfect unison that music was worth money, they were given a reason to buy. Here’s how Apple did that:

  • They solved the problem of how the audience enjoys music. Instead of chaining users to their PCs, they created the iPod.
  • They established the iTunes store and closely integrated it with the device, making the process of purchasing music for the iPod easier and quicker than buying a CD.
Saying that print media can spontaneously convince the public of its innate value is like saying Apple would have been just as successful skinning Napster and adding a shopping cart. Isaacson bemoans the experience of reading publications on a computer monitor versus “in the backyard” as if portability is an experience unique to print. Apple had to overcome that hurdle; why shouldn’t everyone else be forced to do the same?


matt says

Stewart’s point about the replay value of .mp3s is huge as well – there are some albums that I’ve purchased in the past, which had I known then what I know now about the sheer number of times I’d listen to them, would’ve been worth ten times what I paid for them. If I knew for a fact that a new Future Sound of London album would provide me as much value as some of my favorites among their previous releases, I’d be willing to buy it as soon as it came out, pre-order even, for $40, maybe more – because I’d know it’s worth it.

So if I could tell for sure that the news article I was purchasing would be a enthralling and informative read, well-written and easily accessible, then it’d totally be worth it to purchase ‘reading rights’ – but in order for me to have that level of trust, it’d have to be written by an author I respect, who’d proved themselves to me in previous articles. As an example, I recently bought and thoroughly enjoyed a novel called ‘Spanking Shakespeare’, by Jake Wizner, and like it so much that I immediately ordered a copy of his latest book from Amazon.

If my news purchasing experience could run along those same lines, I could see it being a totally viable way to get me to spend money – but they would really have to sell the idea, and expose the writing available, focus on the authors that are going to bring in the big bucks, in order to make it happen. You wouldn’t be buying a ‘new york times’ article – you’d be buying a ‘Guy Smith’ article. ‘Times’ would be the music label, and ‘Guy Smith’ would be the rock star. I kind of like that setup.


Tyler Sticka says

That’s a great point to make, but also a slightly frightening one. If you want to see the effects of a news media centered on faces and names instead of institutions, look no further than cable TV.

This brings up another interesting point: Do we have the ability to react as positively to a news article as we do to music? Music seems, on the service, so much more visceral and emotional.


Matt Youell says

Is that guy a lobbyist? That’s how he comes across. Like he knows he’s on the wrong side of a losing battle but his paycheck demands that he keep fighting.

Still, there is something about print that I can’t quite quantify. Most daily papers are worthless vs. an electronic edition, but I do buy a Sunday NY Times now and then. It’s kind of hit and miss, but those weeks when it is a hit the content density and aesthetic appeal (esp. the NYT magazine) really stand out as an experience that I haven’t seen duplicated electronically.


Tyler Sticka says

You can read quite a bit more about the fellow on Wikipedia, but he doesn’t appear at first glance to be a lobbyist.

That’s interesting that you mentioned The New York Times because, despite their current financial troubles, their web site is miles more successful than most of their competitors. Is that because of the site’s execution, or because they’ve already proven to consumers like yourself that they’re worth it?

I definitely agree that there are certain instances wherein having the physical artifact is a plus, but for me they’re limited to things like comic books where the narrative plays off the composition unique to the boundaries of the printed page.


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