Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Slouching Towards Oblivion
Why the Internet will not save newspapers.
On my way to the local convenience store the other day to grab my daily copy of the New York Times, I was disappointed to find the owner has discontinued his newspaper sales. He became fed up, he explained to me, with the unreliable delivery service, which was often late, or left the newspapers outside in the pouring rain.
Mostly though, he was tired of being left with too many papers at the end of the day. Nobody—other than me, he pointed out sardonically—was buying them.
Such seems to be the unfortunate case for newspapers nationwide. The displacement of physical newspapers by the Internet, a major loss of advertising dollars at national and local papers, and a general lack of interest among young, digitally-oriented readers all seem to have combined to sound the death knell for the newspaper industry.
Authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism are blunt in their assessment of the situation. “Newspapers, as we have known them, are disintegrating and are possibly on the verge of extinction,” they state in the first chapter. “Media corporations,” the authors continue, “after running journalism into the ground, have determined that news gathering and reporting are not profit-making propositions. So they’re jumping ship.”
The depressing numbers bear this out. Last year, the Los Angeles Times cut 300 editorial and staff writer jobs. The Miami Herald cut 205; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 156; Kansas City Star, 150; Sacramento Bee, 128 and 100 jobs were cut at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, larger newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer have filed for bankruptcy. And the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle are losing $1 million a week. They have threatened to shut the paper down.
Times’ columnist, Maureen Dowd sums up newspapers’ predicament in an Op-Ed titled, “Slouching Towards Oblivion.” (New York Times, April 25, 2009)
“Now that everybody can check their iPhones and laptops for news that personally interests them,” Dowd writes, “now that they can Google, blog and tweet… old-school newspapers seem like aging silent film stars, stricken to find themselves outmoded by technology.”
While conventional wisdom suggests news will simply migrate online, and that we should not mourn the loss of “antiques” like newspapers, the prospects for original, quality journalism surviving (never mind thriving) online remain dubious. As usual, there are a number of factors most who favor the conversion of news to the Internet have neglected to consider.
When it comes to the print vs. digital debate, it is worth keeping in mind Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism that, “The medium is the message.”
The celebrated media scholar and theorist first made this observation in 1964’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. There he argues it is the medium itself—not its content—that deserves attention. In other words, it is the new environments and societal changes a new medium or technology (print, radio, television, etc.) brings about that is significant. The medium’s particular content or “message,” McLuhan argues, is irrelevant.
“…the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and it is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium.”
(With regard to a medium’s content, McLuhan famously proclaimed it made little difference if television networks aired educational programs or violent broadcasts. TV’s overall societal effect, he believed, would largely remain the same. “In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves,” McLuhan states in Understanding Media, “it mattered not in the least whether it turned our cornflakes or Cadillacs.”)
The Internet, then, is no different. Indeed, it has already been established we do not read online content the same way we would a book or newspaper article. In general, online users do not read text for comprehension so much as they rapidly scan it for information. According to a study by usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, the eye actually moves across a computer screen differently than it does a printed page—what Nielsen refers to as the “F-Shaped Pattern.”
(Nielsen also claims online readers are turned off by lengthy articles and long paragraphs of text, which may explain why this blog receives so few comments...)
An article in Slate on Nielsen’s findings (June 13, 2008) notes, “…given all the factors that can affect online reading, such as scrolling, font size, user expertise… Nielsen holds that on-screen reading is 25 percent slower than reading on paper.” In other words, if you truly want to understand that lengthy AP story on the latest WikiLeaks cable, you would be better off printing the article out and reading it.
This is, perhaps, the greatest loss in transferring news-print to the Internet: The loss of the time and patience necessary to truly understand the events and issues of the day. Short bursts of news online may give readers a basic idea of what happened. But it will not give them the whole story.
And that, I fear, is what will become of newspaper journalism if the industry is forced to migrate online.
As McLuhan presciently observed, “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”