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The Death of Newspapers

The Death of Newspapers

My old friend Michael drew my attention to an article by Michael Nieslen about changes in publishing and how the paradigm shifts catch companies by surprise. In short:

Each industry has (or had) a standard organizational architecture. That organizational architecture is close to optimal, in the sense that small changes mostly make things worse, not better. Everyone in the industry uses some close variant of that architecture. Then a new technology emerges and creates the possibility for a radically different organizational architecture, using an entirely different combination of skills and relationships. The only way to get from one organizational architecture to the other is to make drastic, painful changes. The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

It’s not that they’re malevolent; they’re just stuck in an institutional structure that is too difficult to change. His first example is newspapers; the New York Times (in decline) versus TechCrunch (in the black).

That got me thinking: what would it take for me to go back to supporting a newspaper? Because, in truth, I love newspapers. I haven’t subscribed to one in about two years now, but I do love newspapers. I just don’t like getting one every day. First: they’re messy. The ink stained my carpet at the point where it met the front door, because the newspaper deliverer would drop it just so. It stained my fingers. They pile up and have to be transported somewhere and be disposed of. They’re net worth isn’t sufficient for all the work I have to do to maintain their presence in my daily life. However: I love sitting outside on the patio of our favourite breakfast place with Jeremy, trading parts of the paper, skimming the stuff that is vaguely interesting, digging down on the stuff that’s very interesting, ignoring the sports section…I suppose we use the newspaper as our internet when we’re not online, or when being online would be too costly, too disruptive, or too awkward. Clearly it’s simply a matter of time before we have devices that will fill this desire handily: a roll of thin plastic, perhaps, tucked under an arm, an easy part of the breakfast scene, online for cheap no matter where we are, showing us only the articles that are at least vaguely interesting if not very interesting to us, with no sports section to ignore; our device would have the upsides of the newspaper (no computers cluttering up the table, getting between the food, the people), but the cleanliness, customizability and immediacy of the internet. The future newspaper is a gadget.

Michael Nieslen says: “My claim is that in ten to twenty years, scientific publishers will be technology companies.” Could that be true of newspapers as well? Is the medium more valuable to us than the content? If newspapers managed to produce the device, instead of the content, or perhaps in conjunction with some content funded by the popularity of the device, could that be their future?

Beth Jefferson makes the case that librarians should carefully watch the decline of the newspaper industry, because our descent is similar and may come soon afterward. We, also, are less about our content than about the medium in which we can present them. Our devices are buildings; while “the library without walls” meme has been going around for a while, the reality is that people still need space, and our spaces are popular as spaces to work, think, be and be seen. At the very least. When we move into things like ubiquitous interfaces, maybe our space becomes the medium, the device.

A recent report on libraries and mobile technologies suggested that we wait on developing mobile tech versions of our collections and services, a conclusion with which some disagreed. While I’m all for being cutting edge (bleeding edge, even), I agree with the report. We have no idea where this mobile thing is going. If we had gone all mobile three years ago (when we easily could have gone to town with it), and then the iphone would have appeared, with its alternate internet of apps. Mobile devices don’t tend to do the web well; rather than get better at it, we’re creating a new web for them, designed with their location-awareness, mobility, and lack of keyboards in mind. What if our big future isn’t in making our content web/mobile friendly, but in building ourselves into the e-newspaper or the e-book, letting you do “more like this” searches, hooking up bibliographies, keyword searches within (digital, mobile) text? Maybe the future of libraries is an app inside an app? What about blackberries and other smartphones? Are they going to get in on this app revolution? Are we going to have competing app universes to contend with? The data plan revolution (at least in Canada) is clearly coming, but when? And what will it bring with it? What restrictions will we be under?

I see the legacy of “waiting” that newspapers have demonstrated has not served them particularly well. But on the flip side, jumping in without getting the full lay of the land doesn’t have a good track record either. Maybe we’re all about to come technology companies, in some way or other.