What's Really Killing Newspapers
They're no longer the best providers of social currency.
The last thing the unwell newspaper industry needs is another diagnosis of what ails it—so here goes!
Not that long ago, the daily newspaper was an indispensable coiner of social currency, and it gave its readers piles of the stuff in each edition. The phrase, which comes from sociology, is often used to describe the information we acquire and then trade—or give away—to start, maintain, and nurture relationships with our fellow humans.
Take, for instance, the voluminous results of newspaper sports pages. Terrific for sports fans, of course, but the sports pages have been used to grease sales calls, break ice on first dates, and fuel water-cooler bonding for a century. Even folks who don't care for sports skimmed the sports pages for a little something about the games and athletes so they could engage in essential small-talk.
For as long as anybody can remember, the newspaper has been the primary info-hub through which people interacted. Oh, people might have talked to the shoe-shine man or their broker about what they heard on the radio or saw on television, but nothing could beat the newspaper as a source for socially lubricating conversation. How many times have you heard a conversation start, "Didja see that article ..."?
By sniffing the bits of social currency an acquaintance had withdrawn from the pages of his daily and was trying to cash—say, a quip about that picture of an egg frying on a city street the paper published; or a comment about a movie review or comic strip; or an opinion about local government based on a piece by a political columnist—the sniffer could learn reams about his social contact.
A recent Associated Press study, "A New Model of News" (PDF), speaks directly to the social currency concept. The news can "be used in a variety of interpersonal situations—to look smart, connect with friends and family and even move up the socio-economic ladder" and "maintain relationships."
Whether by design or chance, the social currency found in a newspaper has a relatively short shelf life. If you don't think so, try bringing up a pivotal play from a week-old baseball game over coffee or invoke a weather story from two days ago. Newspapers thrived, in part, because reading just one edition provided only a few cents' worth of social currency. Compounding your earnings requires that you read the damn thing nearly every day. Ignore a couple of issues, and you get left behind.
Of course, newspapers have never been mere dispensers of social currency. You can read them and not discuss them and still prosper. When I first started to read the New York Times closely—1981, if you must know—it was less to suck up pure information than it was to figure out what the ruling class was reading, so I could do a better job as a junior editor on a political magazine. But to read a newspaper and then keep your trap shut is to miss the point: Newspapers are designed to be read and argued over. You've got to spend social currency to make social currency.
Which returns us to our pallid and sickly subject: the newspaper industry. Other institutions do far better jobs at issuing social currency these days. What is Facebook but the Federal Reserve Bank of social currency? And it's all social currency you can use! Like cocktail chatter, a Facebook posting—be it a link, a list, a photo, or travel plans—conveys the message, I am here. Listen to me. A well-executed Facebook presence, like a superb pontification at the bar or a great phone-in to sports talk radio, demonstrates one's status within one's existing social network. If skillfully wielded, a Facebook page can increase a person's status by attracting "cooler" or more influential friends. These days, you can't raise your status more than a bump by carrying the Wall Street Journal under your arm.
If one of the great attractions of the newspaper was that it brought people together to rub noses, how can it compete for readers' time with sites like Facebook, which can also give you a real-world news dump if that's what you crave? Thanks to the Web, no interest need be esoteric any longer. Right now there isn't a Facebook group about one of my favorite topics, "meth mouth," but there is sure to be one a couple of minutes after I post this piece, with meth heads, dentists, and social workers networking through it.
The social networking that takes place via instant messaging, microblogging, or e-mail further steals from newspapers the mindshare they once owned. You no longer need to rely on a paper for the social currency that a weather report, movie listings, classified ads, shopping bargains, sports info, stock listings, television listings, gossip, or entertainment news provide. As falling circulation indicates, fewer do. And the newspaper isn't the only media hub suffering in the new era. Radio, which once served a similar social role with its menu of music, news, and talk, is plummeting.
What's the cure for the newspaper's malady? As if I knew! Just count this as my small contribution to Adrian Monck's finding that the decline of newspapers has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with the changing world.
Maybe I could be the Jonas Salk of newspapers! I'll think about curing the industry over my vacation this week and report back if I think of anything clever. Or, show me how 21st century you are by smearing something on the Slate Facebook group wall. Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)