How Newspapers Must Change to Survive

The reason I was confident then in my predictions was not out any animus toward newspapers -- on the contrary, as I've written here before, I'm a fourth-generation newspaperman. I love newspapers. And some of the most satisfying moments in my career have been sitting in a café on a Sunday morning watching people around me reading something I'd written. No, what made me certain about this unfolding scenario were my experiences in the electronics industry. Over the years, I'd seen one traditional industry after another, all of them seemingly permanent, be destroyed by the arrival of the digital revolution.

In almost every case -- adding machines, arcade games, printing, letter writing, typing, LP records, clocks and watches, even older electronics businesses -- these once-giant industries had been so annihilated that they were almost erased from our memories, supplanted by wholly new industries defined by microprocessors, mass customization and Moore's Law.

Once I saw Google News and the first great blogs, it was obvious to me that this same destruction was about to happen to newspapers -- and that the real challenge was to overcome sentiment and tradition and look this transformation straight in the eye and accept the full implications of what I saw. The death of newspapers seemed impossible, but so did the death of typewriters. You had to bet on technology, wherever it led.

And, in newspapers, it has led us to where we are now. The "death of newspapers" is now generally assumed; it has become the common view that soon there won't be any major newspapers left in this country, with local papers soon to follow once Craigslist gets around to setting up shop in their backyards.

But that isn't what technology is telling us. Once again, the scenario presented by technology departs from the received view.

What the history of technology tells is that at some point, the slaughter stops. What remains are a handful of survivors. Some, like the handful of companies that still make typewriters, will cater to a small surviving pool of traditional customers. In newspapers, USA Today seems to have the greatest chance of ending up here (while the New York Times, which wants this slot, will never make it).

Some Newspapers Will Survive the Great Shakeout

The other survivors will be very different -- indeed they will look almost nothing like their former selves. They may bear the names of once famous newspapers, but that will be the only resemblance. Technology revolutions are like black holes: what comes out looks nothing like what went in.

If they are smart, some of the newspapers that survive this Great Shakeout have a chance to come all the way back and be major players in the next wave.

But, to do so, they have to recognize that everything has now changed -- and they have to break from their past, recognize the utterly changed nature of the marketplace and embark on a radically new strategy.

How? First of all: Don't try to preserve what you were. It's now too late. Look instead to what you must be in 10 years and get there in five. And for the next two years, do whatever it takes to survive.

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