Print Media: Nostalgia is not a growth model (or, on why being online is better than than paper)

Two years ago Taylor and I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review (which they opted not to publish) critical of Kuttner and the CJR’s faith in the print-hybrid model for media.

After having it sit on our hard drives all this time we are putting it up for reading and commenting. It is, sadly, more or less as relevant today as it was when we wrote it. Here is a link to the full version of Missing the Link: Why Old Media Still Doesn’t Get the Internet.

And here’s another of my favourite passages, (written before the arrival of the kindle!):

Print Media: Nostalgia is not a growth model

Mostly, it is baby boomers who are nostalgic for newsprint, and they are not a growth industry. Sure, there are some, younger, holdouts. But these are generally students of the Columbia Journalism School, not those they hope to write for. Yes, the texture of a newspaper is nice – but the newspapers can’t afford to print and distribute them and, so far, you’ve been unwilling to pay a premium for it.

More seriously, media traditionalists often cite two examples— incidental reading and ideological objectivity—to explain why physical newspapers will and should remain the main distribution channel for print media. However, the purported value of physical newsprint simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Scanning the pages of a newspaper is indeed a virtue. It exposes readers to articles they might not seek out, broadening their range of news and opinion. However, this process is no different from what happens online. Links, aggregators and email steer readers to a far broader range of articles than they could conceivably imagine by simply flipping through a newspaper. Indeed, the internet enables this incidental reading better than newspapers. Take the BBC website, where any given article has links to related pieces both across the internet and in different sections of the site. A political article might cause a reader to click on a link to a related piece in the Science/Nature or Africa sections. Once there, they are confronted with an array of ‘incidental’ headlines. The tunnel syndrome argument simply doesn’t hold weight.

The other oft-cited example of the value of newspapers is that they prevent readers from falling into self-selected ideological silos. The argument follows that, when left to their own devices, innocent readers will gravitate towards the poles of their ideological bias. What they need, and should pay for, is a physical entity that provides them with a limited, but ‘healthy’, range of information.

This argument ignores the fact that many newspapers operate as ideological poles themselves. The New York Times clearly favors the left whereas the Wall Street Journal appeals to the right. More importantly the internet, unlike print media, provides tools to overcome these silos. Not all content delivered through an aggregator will be consistent with a reader’s perspective (indeed, one can imagine a customized aggregator that specifically targets news pieces that challenge its readers). More importantly, the internet gives readers the freedom (and safety) to select content from a broader range of perspectives. Most liberals wouldn’t be caught dead with an issue of the National Review in their hands, and when was the last time you saw a pinstriped Wall Streeter reading the Nation? But thousands of liberals read the Corner (the group blog of the National Review). This is because the ease, speed and anonymity of the web stimulates exploration that the physical world prohibits. In addition, many posts are written in response to other pieces, to whom they inevitably link (imagine the Nation sending readers to National Review!). Neither traditional nor New Media can single handedly mediate or resolve political difference, but at least New Media links the poles to one another, rather then creating isolated playgrounds where pundits can safely take shots at one another.

While sometimes seen as nostalgia, these arguments are simply a proxy for a deeper set of concerns felt by elites who fear the day the unkempt masses are finally freed to choose and read what they will. Controlling your customer has a never proven to be a sustainable business strategy, and for a business deeply concerned with freedom, it is disturbingly anti-democratic.

This piece is pulled from a longer piece we wrote called Missing The Link: Why Old Media still doesn’t get the Internet.

9 thoughts on “Print Media: Nostalgia is not a growth model (or, on why being online is better than than paper)

  1. Jeremy Vernon

    If the NYT is representative of “the left” that is a sad statement about the breadth of discussion within the United States print media. Chomsky rightly points out that by self-selecting themselves as political message machines, newspapers confine the discussion. Edwin Schlossberg famously said “the skill of writing is to create the context in which other people can think.” Thus the narrower and more professionalized the class of writers the narrower the scope of thought amongst the readership.The key component missing from the discourse around the noisy expiration of this century's lamp-makers, and it needs to be emphasized, is that print media conflates exclusivity with elitism. Newspapers are exclusive sources of opinion, virtually none of them are elite. A journalism degree does not an informed person make. The arguments against journalism aren't merely relative comparisons between newspapers and blogs – there are structural problems that pre-date HTTP that make oligopolist commercial media iredeemably malevolent.

  2. Andrew G

    David, I think this is a very important topic and I’m pleased to have come across it on your blog. (Clearly I should spend less time buried in newsprint and more time scanning blogs such as yours.)What I’m wondering is, even if newspapers shift away from newsprint as you suggest, how do they make money? In other words, what are the sustainable business models that will emerge as print subscription revenues dwindle?I agree that part of the answer is that lots of high-quality content can be produced at low cost: as you note, there’s lots of it on the web already. But I think some kinds of reporting that we have reason to value will continue to be expensive. As Time Inc’s Ann Moore remarks in The Economist this week: “Somebody does have to pay for the Bagdad bureau.” (…)With consumers reluctant to pay for online content and online advertising seemingly not enough to pay the bills for many papers, what business models will emerge? Some, such as Time, are experimenting with a mix of free and ‘premium’ content. Others are writing about micropayments. But it’s not clear whether any (or some combination) of these is the answer. (links:…)So to my mind, the million dollar questions (literally!) are, first, what are the principles that will determine which of these models will succeed? And second, based on these principles what new business models will work? I’m interested to read what you and your readers think–I certainly don't have the answers.

  3. david_a_eaves

    Andrew, the challenge is, there may not be an answer that conforms to the question you are asking. This is what prompted me to write this piece. It is also the answer behind Shirky's Thinking the Unthinkable.Some rambling thoughts I'm building on: People are focused on how the institutions are going to have to change. But maybe the nature of the problem is going to change as well? For a long time we've outsourced the accountability and oversight of private and public institutions to the press who have done a passable job (that's all that was asked). But if there is no more business model for that, then maybe we are going to ask to change the private and public institutions themselves by architecting markets and processes that favour transparency. There will always be the need for traditional journalists – just probably not as many of them (do I really need the CBC giving me a “Canadian” perspective, from Washington DC… no. I actually prefer reading the American media's writing about America. It tends to be vastly superior), and I suspect, that some people will pay for it.Even if not, let's remember, more “news” is being gathered than at any time in history. We aren't at risk of losing “the news” if anything we have a problem of poor filters. The newspapers have all been reporting on the exact same stories for too long – their filters have been too constrained. The internet offers so many stories that it overwhelms – many that are been written by pro-ams. Even if the newspaper industry dies, “news” isn't going to go away. It will just find a new way of transmitting itself. And yes, it will probably even be messy for a while.

  4. CharlesGYF

    To be blunt, newspapers exist because advertisers exist and see value in using print to disseminate their own information.Until they find better ways to sell their products, they will continue to fund newspapers.

  5. david_a_eaves

    Charles, thank you for your comment. I think we agree on your statement, but the problem is that advertisers are finding a better place for their ads and that this – combined with declining subscription rates – are killing some newspapers (and tv broadcasters too). That trend is what started this, and other discussions on the future of the news industry.

  6. Chris Kutarna

    Newspapers exist because advertisers exist — that's exactly why newspapers are scared sh-tless right now (my, my that was mild self censorship, eh?). Contact the advertising department of any major consumer goods company and ask them how they plan to break up their ad-spend among print, online and new media channels in the next couple years. Newspapers are going down, fast.If you're a consumer goods company (say, Sears) looking to sell Maytag Series 089H dishwashers, where would you rather advertise: in a mass-subscription news publication where ads are seen as a distraction from the real content you want, or at the top of the results page whenever somebody googles “Maytag Series 089H”?The latter ad is a helluva lot cheaper to run, because instead of shouting to the masses, you're just buying access to the tiny sliver of the consumer market that is looking to buy that particular product. Newspaper advertising is like trying to pull a sliver out of your thumb with a forklift. Who in their right mind does that, when tweezers work so much better?

  7. Pingback: Annotated Bibliography » Attitudes

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