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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without some laid-off or bought-out journalist writing a letter of condolence to himself and his profession. The Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review have harbored these self-pitying fellows, as have newspaper columns and blogs. The Web magazine LA Observed has almost made the unhiring of journalists its beat, with black-bunting dispatches about job cuts at the Hollywood Reporter, the L.A. Daily News, the Ventura Star, and the Chicago Tribune in the last month alone.

The genre will only grow, what with newspapers gone over the edge in Albuquerque, N.M., and teetering in Denver; the Tribune Co. chain thrown into bankruptcy; the New York Times Co. borrowing against its skyscraper to cover debt; and other newspaper companies—the Journal Register Co., Lee Enterprises, MediaNews, the McClatchy Co., the Philadelphia dailies—racing to stay ahead of their creditors. The Paper Cuts mashup records 15,471 layoffs and buyouts at U.S. newspapers this year. That doesn't include the magazine industry, which is showing hundreds the door as titles downsize or fold.

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The misery of a laid-off or bought-out journalist isn't greater than that of a sacked bond trader, a RIF-ed clerk, or a fired autoworker. The only reason we're so well-informed about journalists' suffering is they have easy access to a megaphone. The underlying cause of their grief can be traced to the same force that has destroyed other professions and industries: digital technology.

Folks giggled at Wired founder Louis Rossetto's bombastic formulation in 1993 that the "digital revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon" and upsetting the old order. But Rossetto is getting the last laugh. Wherever digital zeros and ones can dislodge analog processes, they either have or are. Call it a digital slay-ride.

The rise of digital technology isn't the whole story of the current newspaper collapse, of course. Advertising is the lifeblood of newspapers, and it generally falls during recessions—and the current recession is cratering newspaper advertising, as Newsosaur blogger Alan D. Mutter reports.

But newspapers were hemorrhaging before the recession because advertising and reader eyeballs were moving to the Web. Online advertising—a purely digital play—grew faster than advertising on any other new media technology ever recorded.  Last year, Web-advertising revenues passed radio-advertising revenues for the first time. The Interactive Advertising Bureau reports (PDF, Page 14) that the growth of Web advertising in its first 13 years eclipses that of both broadcast TV and cable TV in their first 13.

American Journalism Review's John Morton does a good job of finding some good news among the bad for newspapers in the current issue, pointing out that the industry still makes money. But nobody believes that newspapers will regain their lost ground after the recession recedes.

Before we get too weepy about lost journalistic jobs and folded publications, let's ask how often reporters lamented the decline of other industries, products, and services swamped by Rossetto's digital typhoon. Here's a very short list of typhooned jobs for which I wish there were a Paper Cuts-like mashup of losses:

• Bank tellers
• Typewriters
• Typesetting
• Carburetors
• Vacuum tubes
• Slide rules
• Disc jockeys
• Stockbrokers
• Telephone operators
• Yellow pages
• Repair guys
• Bookbinders
• Pimps (displaced by the cell phone and the Web)
• Cassette and reel-to-reel recorders
• VCRs
• Turntables
• Video stores
• Record stores
• Bookstores
• Recording industry
• Courier/messenger services
• Travel agencies
• Print and cinematic porn
• Porn actors
• Stenographers
• Wired telcos
• Drummers
• Toll collectors (slayed by the E-ZPass)
• Book publishing (especially reference works)
• Conventional-watch makers
• "Browse" shopping
• U.S. Postal Service
• Printing-press makers
• Film cameras
• Kodak (and other film-stock makers)