In any other industry, a product that lost 1 percent of market share for two decades -- only to then double or triple that rate of decline -- would be declared dead. The manufacturer would discontinue it and rush out a replacement product more in line with the desires of the marketplace. So, let's finally come out and say: Newspapers are dead. They will never come back. By the end of this decade, the newspaper industry will suffer the same death rate -- 90-plus percent -- that every other industry experiences when run over by a technology revolution.
So why do newspapers linger on? Why do so many papers refuse to accept reality and metamorphize into real Web presences rather than merely online downloads of their print copy?
One answer is that most newspapers are unbelievably retrograde. They grew up in a world of newsprint and that's where they intend to stay. They cannot believe an institution as venerable as the newspaper can ever go away.
They are wrong. And their publications will die first. All of them.
Better odds face those newspapers -- like the Merc, the Wall Street Journal, the Times and USA Today -- that have squarely faced their own obsolescence and have raced to build strong and lively Web sites (It's no coincidence that yesterday Knight-Ridder, owner of the Mercury News, announced that it had joined a consortium of newspapers to buy Topix.net, a news search consortium -- wisely deciding that if you can't beat the news aggregators you might as well join them). These papers appear to be hanging on to their print editions to buy time until they find an exit strategy.
But that plan has its own costs. For example, even the best of these newspaper sites are still surprisingly retrograde. For all of their blogs, online journals and cheeky attitudes, they are still depressingly static. Why? No doubt it's a legacy issue: when you've been in the business of producing words and still pictures for decades, it's hard to cross over into the new reality of links and mpegs. Thus, while some of the best writing on the Web can be found in newspaper sites, it is not always the best (or at least the most rewarding) reading.
This is the last great divide, and my sense is that few newspapers will be able to make the crossing. If they kill their print editions now, they won't have the revenues to make a smooth transition to cyberspace; but if they keep wearing their paper albatrosses, they'll have less of a chance of succeeding in the new world. Thus, if all of the old-fashioned newspapers are going to die, nearly all of the forward-looking ones will too. Before it is all over, the number of "newspapers" left in America will probably be less than 10 -- and they might not be individual papers but rather new entities created out of the current large chains. They will become the primary sources of national and international news, delivered into multimedia form.
As for the local papers: they will be shut down, their presses depreciated and scrapped, their offices leased out and the newsroom reporters scattered to the four winds of blogdom and specialty Web sites … where they will provide local news, commentary, movie times and maybe even those long lost Little League box scores.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.