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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

US: the dying newspaper, wimpy websites, and the democratic crisis

"I've been involved with newspapers, in some form or another, for a quarter century. If I don't see a compelling reason to read them, why should anyone else?" Found at ABC News, veteran columnist Michael S. Malone's damning editorial about the future of the newspaper supports recent predictions of print's demise with experienced opinion, opinion which is quick to dismiss the newspaper as a sustainable medium. Malone describes how he and many of his colleagues have grown so accustomed to the convenience, immediacy, and customizing of Internet news that they don't think that print subscriptions make sense anymore. And although he admits that he gets most of his news online, Malone doesn't feel that established, well-respected publications are using the Internet to its fullest capabilities, an opinion in which he certainly does not stand alone.


Nora Paul at Online Journalism Review joins Malone in an insightful analysis of the "promises" that online news held ten years ago at "New News," a Poynter Institute seminar, and the "reality" of what those promises have become. She basically writes that although some of the "promises," which range from a "Limitless Newshole" to "Communication between reporter and reader" to "New Expressive reporting styles," have been somewhat fulfilled, the majority remained unattained, leaving newspaper websites drab and boring. Seeing that most online versions of major publications are simply re-hashings of, if not the same content as the print edition, Paul concludes that "New methods for crafting and delivering compelling news stories online are still a long way from being fully developed."

Malone doesn't even give papers this benefit of the doubt. He forecasts that by the end of the decade, 90% of print publications will be out of business because they will be unable to adapt themselves to the current technological revolution. "Before it is over, the number of "newspapers" left in America will probably be less than 10 - and they might not be individual papers but rather new entities created out of the current large chains." This anticipated conglomeration of the newspaper industry is perhaps the most dangerous prediction, but seems more and more feasible as news corporations cut staff and ignore investments in their websites in order to maintain high profits, giving their shareholders their quick financial fix but destroying the quality and future of their publications.

This is reflected in experienced reporter and editor Davis Merritt's book, "Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism is Putting Democracy at Risk." Merritt is also skeptical about the survival of the printed word, but says that for the sake of democracy, newspaper style journalism is necessary. As cited on the Indy Star book review, "When citizens don't have access to relevant information 'and do not have an active agora in which to act upon their values, democracy is left in the hands of insiders and special interests." So essentially, if local papers disappear and national papers are sucked up by one or two large organizations, as Malone predicts, there could be a serious democratic crisis.

Keeping that in mind, let's look at Jack Shafer's article about billionaire Philip Anschutz's bold media moves in the US. Having patented his Examiner label in 70 cities across the country and having recently started a free paper of that name in the Washington D.C. area, Shafer asks why Anschutz decided to break into a dying print media in which his profits will probably not rise above 6%. Looking into his past, Shafer notes that Anschutz's companies laid much of the fiber-optic cable across the country and predicts that the free paper, which he delivers to rich neighborhoods, is simply the first step in plans to begin coast to coast Examiner websites.

If this prediction turns out to be true, the democratic crisis could be worse than Merritt thinks. Imagine, Anschutz creates innovative websites that go light years beyond the feeble special features and lacking interactivity that today's major news sites provide to become the most popular Internet news source. In the meantime, major publishers' lack of foresight in their digital divisions as highlighted by Paul renders them incapable of competing with Anschutz. They watch their 30% profits plummet and their companies go under, as Malone predicts. What's left? One great, big, ugly monopoly of an online news corporation that not only controls the information you read, but also strangles the freedom and democracy that the internet is designed to champion.

Sources: ABC News, Online Journalism Review, Indy Star, Slate

Posted by john burke on March 29, 2005 at 06:15 PM | Permalink

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Comments

all this predicting fails to mention the role of the AP in news gathering and distribution. The true loss to American journalism - and democracy - was the virtual death of UPI. No one noticed.
The internet is form, not function.

Posted by: jim clifford at May 6, 2005 8:42:29 PM

There's an excerpt from Buzz Merritt's book, KNIGHTFALL, at the AuthorViews web site. It talks about corporate journalism at the L.A. Times and other papers. The URL is:

http://www.authorviews.com/authors/merritt/merritt-obd.htm

STEVE O'KEEFE

Posted by: Steve O'Keefe at Apr 12, 2005 8:43:24 PM