The future of newspapers.

Policy made plain.
Jan. 7 2006 12:10 AM

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The future of newspapers.

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Brand-name content; Rube Goldberg delivery process
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Brand-name content; Rube Goldberg delivery process

Somewhere in the forest, a tree is cut down. It is loaded onto a giant truck and hauled a vast distance to a factory, where the trees are turned into huge rolls of paper. These rolls are loaded onto another truck and hauled another vast distance to another factory, where the rolls of paper are covered in ink, chopped up, folded, stacked, tied, and loaded onto a third set of trucks, which fan out across cities and regions dropping bundles here and there.

Printing plants no longer have the clickety-clack of linotype machines and bubbling vats of molten lead. The letterpress machines that stamped the ink on the paper have been supplanted by offset presses that transfer it gently. There is computer-controlled this and that. Nevertheless, the process remains highly physical, mechanical, complicated, and noisy. As we live through the second industrial revolution, your daily newspaper remains a tribute to the wonders of the first one.

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Meanwhile, back to those bundles. Some of them are opened and the newspapers are put, one-by-one, into plastic bags. Bagged or unbagged, they are loaded onto a fourth set of vehicles—bicycles by legend, usually these days a car or small truck—and flung individually into your bushes or at your cat. Other bundles go to retail establishments. Still other newspapers are locked into attractive metal boxes bolted into the sidewalk. Anyone who is feeling lucky and happens to possess the exact change has a decent shot at obtaining a paper or, for the same price, carting away a dozen.

What happens next is aided by a flat surface, especially on a Sunday near Christmas. The proud owner of up to four or five pounds of paper and ink begins searching for the parts he or she wants. The paper has multiple sections, each of which is either folded into others or wrapped around others according to an ancient formula known only to newspaper publishers and designed to guarantee that no one section can either be found on the first go-through or removed without putting half a dozen other sections into play. Newspaper-industry regulations do not require any particular labeling system for sections, but they do require that if letters are used, the sections cannot be in alphabetical order.

And so, at last, there are two piles of paper: a short one of stuff to read, and a tall one of stuff to throw away. Unfortunately, many people are taking the logic of this process one step further. Instead of buying a paper in order to throw most of it away, they are not buying it in the first place.

Bill Gates says that in technology things that are supposed to happen in less than five years usually take longer than expected, while things that are supposed to happen in more than 10 years usually come sooner than expected. Ten years ago, when I went to work for Microsoft, the newspaper industry was in a panic over something called Sidewalk—a now-forgotten Microsoft project to create Web site entertainment guides for a couple dozen big cities. Newspapers were convinced that Microsoft could and would put them out of business by stealing their ad base. It didn't happen. The collapse of the Internet bubble did happen. And, until very recently, the newspapers got complacent. Some developed good Web sites, some didn't, but most stopped thinking of the Web as an imminent danger.

Ten years later, newspapers are starting to panic again. But merely slobbering after bloggers may not be enough. In 1996, the oldest Americans who grew up with computers and don't even understand my tiresome anecdotes about how people used to resist them ("What's a typewriter, Mike?") were just entering adulthood. Now they are most of the working population, or close to it.

The trouble even an established customer will take to obtain a newspaper continues to shrink, as well. Once, I would drive across town if necessary. Today, I open the front door and if the paper isn't within about 10 feet I retreat to my computer and read it online. Only six months ago, that figure was 20 feet. Extrapolating, they will have to bring it to me in bed by the end of the year and read it to me out loud by the second quarter of 2007.

No one knows how all this will play out. But it is hard to believe that there will be room in the economy for delivering news by the Rube Goldberg process described above. That doesn't mean newspapers are toast. After all, they've got the brand names. You gotta trust something called the "Post-Intelligencer" more than something called "Yahoo!" or "Google," don't you? No, seriously, don't you? OK, how old did you say you are?

And newspapers have got the content. The first time I heard myself called a "content provider," I felt like a guy who'd been hired by the company that makes Tupperware to make sure there was plenty of Jell-O salad. As a rule, anyone who uses the term "content provider" without a smirk needs to consider getting content from someone else.

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