The Digital Slay-Ride: What's killing newspapers is the same thing that killed the slide rule.

Media criticism.
Dec. 16 2008 7:48 PM

The Digital Slay-Ride

What's killing newspapers is the same thing that killed the slide rule.

(Continued from Page 1)

Local television news, feeling the same hurt as newspapers, is likewise making cuts. The New York Times reports that the typical late-news program reaches 12 percent of viewers compared with 21 percent from a decade ago and that revenues are down 7 percent. To make ends meet, many stations are giving their exorbitantly paid veteran anchors the heave-ho.

In Washington, D.C., Gannett-owned WUSA-TV is replacing its news crews with multimedia journalists "who will shoot and edit news stories single-handedly," reports the Washington Post. Such job-juggling would have been impossible in the analog days. Cameras were heavy, bulky, and complex to operate. You needed an editing console to create the segment and a telescoping transmitter on top of a van to send images back to the studio. Now the digital technologies of tiny cameras, laptops, editing software, and WiFi connections can do most of the heavy work.

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Perhaps the most prescient of all digital prophets was scholar W. Russell Neuman, whose 1991 book, The Future of the Mass Audience, saw how the Web would overturn the existing order before the public World Wide Web even existed. The media—newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, cable, motion pictures, games, music, books, newsletters—all resided in separate "unique, noncompetitive" analog silos. Translating and transmitting from one format to another was "an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor," Neuman writes.

By introducing these varied—and often monopolistic—media to a "single, universal, multipurpose network," the digital Web destroyed the old barriers and created new competitive pressures. For end users, viewing last night's Dave Letterman monologue or cruising Craigslist or scanning today's headlines or reading one's inbox or listening to the Timbaland/Cornell collaboration now happens inside the same space. In other words, CBS, the Times, Universal Music, Verizon, Blockbuster video, and anybody else who wants your media attention is fighting for your attention (mindshare and dollars) in the same kiosk. It only stands to reason that in today's environment, the daily newspaper—that wonderful, crusty old beast, which I love with all my heart—would take a beating.

Newspapers embraced the new platform when it arrived in the mid-1990s, but they weren't very inventive. All the great innovations in advertising, search, and social networking have come from outside the newspaper industry, which, given its 20 percent margins, it could have afforded to fund. Today, with the Web beating newsprint as a distribution platform and gaining on it as advertising destination, the odds are against conventional newspapers.

It appears to me that most newspapers—by choice or by necessity—have made the "decision to liquidate," to steal the phrase from Philip Meyer's excellent 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age: They're cutting costs, cutting staff, cutting pages, cutting features, cutting quality, and will continue cutting until the last reader and advertiser depart. (Local TV news looks to be following a similar script.)

I keep waiting for one of these distressed, failing newspapers to realize that it has nothing to lose and get a little crazy and create something brand new and brilliant for readers and advertisers. I keep being disappointed.

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That said, I still love the incredibly clever and useful New York Times Reader, which belongs on everybody's computer. There's even a beta for the Mac now. I have great hopes for the "Open API" program at the Times. I'm also crazy about the Boston Globe's "Big Picture" feature. Adrian Holovaty isn't a newspaper, but he could be. The former Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive employee created the data-scrapping EveryBlock.com, which impresses me. What's your favorite 21st-century newspaper innovation? And help me build out my list of analog roadkill with your suggestions. Send correspondence to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Digital in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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