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.

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)

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.

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.

******

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.)

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