18th Century Technology: The slow demise of newspapers

From Hube at the Colossus of Rhodey:

Get out the credit card! Not!

Our illustrious Wilmington News Journal (Delaware Online) is going to have a pay wall very soon. It currently is keeping track of your visits — you get five freebies before you’ll have to purchase a package!

Yeesh. I haven’t met anyone yet who’s gonna put out the $15 a month to read the Journal. I wouldn’t do it for a paper like the NY Times or the Philly Inquirer; why in the world would I do it for the WNJ?

Any Delawareans gonna shell out that cash for the online version?

I remember the News-Journal from the two years I lived in Hockessin, and I cannot say that I was particularly impressed.

Hube’s article about the News-Journal brings is only about a small paper, but they aren’t the only one:

L.A. Times to Charge for Content

Filed under: Dog Trainer — Patterico @ 11:39 pm

Hahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahaha.

OK. Gimme a second. All right. In a fascinating change of . . .

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

The Los Angeles Times will begin charging readers for access to its online news, joining a growing roster of major news organizations looking for a way to offset declines in revenue.

Starting March 5, online readers will be asked to buy a digital subscription at an initial rate of 99 cents for four weeks. Readers who do not subscribe will be able to read 15 stories in a 30-day period for free. There will be no digital access charge for subscribers of the printed newspaper.

Good luck with that, editors. I barely read your crap any more for free.

Fifteen stories a month? Even The New York Times gives you twenty!

You can usually get around paywalls, but it takes some effort. I have a WALL STREET JOURNAL widget on my sidebar, but most (not all) of the stories take you to the first couple of paragraphs and then a reference that the rest is subscriber content only . . . along with a subscription offer. If I copied a sentence, and then pasted it in Google, I could usually find the whole story.

But, since I use WALL STREET JOURNAL articles fairly frequently, I figured that it was only proper to go ahead and buy the digital subscription. It has what I want, and I don’t believe I was cheated.

I do have to pick up The Philadelphia Inquirer dead trees edition on the way to work: the crossword puzzle has become a work requirement. I have never been good at crossword puzzles, but I (finally) managed to solve one completely, on my own, the other day. The Inquirer has its own form of digital subscription, but it’s kind of balky, and most of the content is available on philly.com. Sometimes it seems as though the philly.com site is deliberately hard to navigate, perhaps to induce people to go ahead and buy the digital subscriptions. Since I am already paying for the print edition, I believe that I have paid sufficiently for Inquirer content when I use it, and even then I try to adhere to Fair Use guidelines.

Our good friend but far too infrequent visitor aphrael noted, on Patterico’s site,

there’s a fundamental problem in the newspaper industry: the newspaper bundle of news, sports, entertainment, and advertising has been largely debundled. employment ads in newspapers are now useless; so are ads for rentals, real estate sales, and general property sale. classified ads have all moved online.

That’s true enough, but I’d say it goes further than that. Aphrael was referring to the separation between the product and advertising, but when I look at my own news consumption, if I had to have a subscription to pay for everything, I’d need more money than Hoagie! When I want sports news, I check out The Lexington Herald-Leader, because I’m looking for information on the University of Kentucky Wildcats, or the Oakland Tribune, for stories on the Raiders. For national news, The New York Times is the place to go, and for anything dealing with economics, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. But I only pay for one of them.

Online ads seem to be easier to skip than print ones; the print ones lay around as long as you have the paper, so there’s more chance to see them, while the online ads get closed out immediately.

The problem is simple: the newspapers are still 18th century technology. They’ve been updated, with Linotype having been replaced by offset printing, by black-and-white photographs, and then color photographs, and colored printing, but they are still, in the end, hours-old news, printed on paper, and delivered by trucks and then newspaper carriers1 to your door or to the local convenience store. Many people still like the “feel” of opening a physical newspaper, and reading it, but those people are steadily getting older; younger people are more comfortable with getting their news via the computer or kindle or tablet, and didn’t necessarily grow up with the print edition newspaper around their homes.

Further, the news in the print edition is hours old. Your editor lives far enough away from the City of Brotherly Love that the print edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer which is delivered to the local Turkey Hill convenience store, just barely, and sometimes not quite in time for him to pick up on his way to work is the early edition; frequently there are notices in the sports section that “this game ended too late for inclusion in this edition.” For your editor, those notices are important only during football season, and only on the Sunday and Monday night NFL games. But it means that your editor must then go to the computer and check msn.com or some other source to find out the evening game scores.

If people who want the latest news have to go to the internet or television to get the latest information, why shouldn’t they go to the internet or television to get all of their news? That is the problem that 18th century technology can never overcome; the print edition is, of necessity, old news, and the transition of 18th century technology into 21st century technology has not come in a path through which the 18th century technology companies have been able to figure out how to make profitable.

In a way, this was foreseeable even before the internet age: print newspapers as a competitive business were dying a long time ago, as most cities simply could not or would not support more than one major daily newspaper. The evening newspapers started dying out first, with many simply subsumed into the morning papers, in those cities where one corporation owned both,2 or going out of business entirely. Then competing morning papers usually wound up with competition narrowing that down to one local newspaper,3 in effect, a monopoly.4 As the 1980s began, out-of-region major newspapers like The New York Times and Chicago Tribune started to become available as same-day publications in a few bookstores, but were still not available for local delivery.

The problem for current newspapers, in their attempts to make themselves profitable over the internet, is that they are being, once again, subject to competition. Since news from everywhere is available over the internet, local newspapers are competing with newspapers from across the country, and many people who have interests from outside of the local region, such as following a non-local sports team, are not going to be as willing to pay for a local “paper” on the internet if their particular interest is not well-covered by that local “paper.” In all but a few large cities, newspapers proved to be an industry which could not support competition. And how do pay sites compete with free, unless the pay site contains exclusive content which has enough of a market to generate profit?

Your editor wishes that he was able to come up with a free market concept which would allow newspapers to flourish in the internet age, but has been no more successful in that than the professionals. He can envision a concept in which a major newspaper like The New York Times would partner with smaller, local papers, to provide one source, under subscription, which would enable consumers to access the national and international coverage of the Times and the state and local coverage of local newspapers, but cannot see how this could succeed, competing with free, in a non-monopoly business structure. And your editor would never support the notion that the government should somehow subsidize newspapers to keep them from going bankrupt; he would rather see them all fail than have a government newspaper.

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  1. Your editor was a paperboy from the seventh through eleventh grades, delivering both the morning Lexington Herald and afternoon Lexington Leader in Mt Sterling, Kentucky. He admits to a definite bias in favor of newspapers, but still realizes that they are antiquated technology.
  2. The two newspapers that your editor delivered were owned by the same corporation, and the evening paper, the Lexington Leader, was folded into the morning Lexington Herald, and renamed the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1983.
  3. The Lexington Herald-Leader did have some competition even in Lexington from the Louisville Courier-Journal, which was actually a better newspaper as far as world and national news coverage was concerned. But the Herald-Leader competed with every day, in depth coverage of the University of Kentucky basketball team. UK, with seven NCAA basketball championships, was always the topic of conversation, even among people who never went to college, and there was a story that related to the basketball team every day, in season or out.
  4. In Philadelphia, Philadelphia Media Network Inc., the corporation which owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and their common website, philly.com, has announced yet another cutback on newsroom personnel, in an effort to consolidate into one newsroom for both papers.