Once, when I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, a student asked me what I thought newspapers would do about the then-emerging internet. Would newspapers survive?
At the time, I thought I gave a wise reply. I told the student that I thought newspapers and the digital world would find a way to co-exist peacefully, and I really did believe that.
I remember thinking of my first newspaper job. I covered the police and fire beats in those days, along with a couple of reporters from two local radio stations. We competed with each other, but it was a friendly competition. We often helped each other in double-checking our facts. I never felt that people who listened to either radio station did so instead of subscribing to my newspaper. I don’t think either of those radio reporters felt that people who read the paper did so instead of listening to the radio.
It was generally understood that many folks did both. How the news was delivered had changed when I had that conversation with my student – and it has changed even more since – but newspapers always existed alongside the newest technological advance, whatever it was. I believed newspapers would find a way. But nearly all newspapers failed to grasp the nature of the challenge they faced from the internet.
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Initially, most newspapers treated the internet like some commercial fad. They put the fruits of their employees’ labors, their content, online because, well, positively, everyone had a website. It was like an email address. If you didn’t have one, you were not legitimate.
But newspapers didn’t treat their websites like another part of their newspaper – for which a price must be paid – because it was online. They didn’t take it seriously, and so they charged nothing. Like many people, they contended that home computers wouldn’t last. Computers were novelties. It was only a matter of time. Funny. Folks said the same thing about radio and television.
Few, if any, people could foresee the changes in journalism since I had that conversation with my student. In an ideal world, perhaps newspapers would peacefully (and profitably) co-exist with the digital delivery system; indeed, I believe there was a time, a relatively brief time as it turned out, when the proverbial window was open to such an arrangement, but it slammed shut without any warning.
One of the things that newspapers failed to understand was that folks quickly got the idea that everything online was free once you paid your admission fee (internet access). Copyright law magically stopped at the water’s edge.
I think that will change. In fact, it is changing already. Communications laws – i.e., copyright and libel laws – will be expanded via court rulings to apply to the digital world. That really is simply a matter of time.
Some of the more visionary operators of websites concluded early on that there was money to be made from charging for access to their wares, whatever they happened to be, and from hiring people who could position the digital arm of a newspaper to be on the cutting edge. Still, few of those websites actually were arms of newspapers.
By the time newspapers realized they were losing print subscribers – many of whom, no doubt, found they could get the same material from the internet for free – it was too late for most. Charging for access to online content was a lost cause. Savvy online news readers knew that, except for local news, they could find articles on just about anything anywhere else, and subscription rates plummeted.
Advertising revenue has paid the bills for newspapers for a long time, but advertising revenue declines when circulation declines. In the recoveries that tend to follow economic downturns, circulation usually rebounds. In the current economy, it has become a death spiral. The internet has advantages that newspapers are not likely to overcome.
If I could go back in time and relive that conversation, I would tell my student to focus on small- to medium-sized newspapers because they were the ones uniquely positioned to provide news their readers could use.
I live in the Dallas area, and I tell my students the large city newspapers in the Metroplex – the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram – will provide some but not all of the local news being generated in the smaller cities nearby. They don’t have the human resources, and the tendency of some newspapers to rely on citizen journalists who can post their articles directly to the website overlooks the fact that trained journalists are much more likely to ask the questions that need to be asked and provide the information that readers want.