Silicon Insider: Newspapers Nearing Death?

ByCommentary by MICHAEL S. MALONE

March 24, 2005 -- -- Does anybody read newspapers anymore? And if so, why?

There was a time, just three years ago, when I got three newspapers each morning. Living in Silicon Valley, I, of course, subscribed to the San Jose Mercury News. I bought it for the business stories, the movie listings and neighborhood news. Having once worked for the paper, there was a nostalgia factor as well.

I also subscribed to the San Francisco Chronicle -- not for the news coverage, for which that newspaper is notoriously bad, but for the columns and features, for which the paper is justly esteemed. The Chron was also the paper of my childhood; I learned column writing from the likes of Herb Caen, Art Hoppe and John L. Wasserman.

Finally, there was The Wall Street Journal, which I mostly read for the editorial and feature pages -- dipping into the news section mostly for story ideas. I used to dream of writing for a paper like the Journal -- and like many of life's dreams, once it came true it wasn't nearly as magical as the fantasy.

I also occasionally picked up the Sunday edition of The New York Times, mostly because it was America's Paper of Record, and also because I had once written a column for the newspaper -- and even turned down a job there because I didn't want to leave the Valley.

Three newspapers every morning. And I would likely have taken two more, the San Jose News and the Palo Alto Times (the latter because it once carried my Little League box scores) if they hadn't gone out of business in the general slaughter of evening papers. I was a true newspaper person: I loved reading them, I taught them in school, I regularly wrote for them, and always assumed that some day, after the TV and magazine stuff was over, I'd go back to them.

And then something happened.

I can't precisely place the moment when I stopped reading newspapers, but it was sometime during the dot-com boom. My family went off to Africa for a couple months one summer, cancelled our newspaper subscriptions, and when we got home never really got around to re-subscribing. Eventually, perhaps three months later, we did start again -- but by then the bloom was off.

First to go was the Times. That one was easy. I didn't write for it anymore. The kids kept me too busy on the weekend to read it. My colleagues always pointed out the interesting articles. And, most of all, because I didn't trust the Gray Lady's reporting anymore.

Next was the Merc. I found that the only thing I even looked at in the paper was the headlines in the business section -- and I could get those stories in other places. That, and the movie listings -- and when I needed those I could just drop four bits into a local newspaper rack. A few weeks ago, when the paper reprinted a column of mine in its Sunday Perspective section, I had to depend upon my 85-year-old mother to cut out the article. Otherwise, I wouldn't even have a hard copy.

Then came the Chron. Of all of them, that was the one I noticed most. I missed the arts section, especially the old Sunday pink section, and the columnists. But after a month or so, I didn't even notice.

That was more than a year ago. These days, when I take the kids to school, the only newspaper lying on my driveway is the Wall Street Journal (my paper recycle bin is amazingly light these days). I only subscribe to that because my wife likes to read it in print form. If not for her, I wouldn't have even seen the column I wrote for that paper last week.

Now keep in mind: I've been involved with newspapers, in some form or another, for a quarter century. If I don't see a compelling reason to read them, why should anyone else?

And I'm not alone. In talking with some of my colleagues, men and women who had spent as many years, if not more, than me in newspapers, most of them have also admitted to rarely opening a paper anymore. One friend sheepishly said that he didn't even read the newspaper at which he had shared two Pulitzer Prizes.

That's why I wasn't surprised when one major metropolitan newspaper after another in the last year has had to revise downward their inflated circulation. I knew they were lying, not just to their advertisers, but to themselves. I'd been through the whole dance of allowing a subscription to expire…only to have the paper call and beg me to come back; or, as a last resort, simply drop the paper for free on my driveway in order to keep the empty subscription numbers propped up. I got real tired of lugging out a recycle bin filled with still-wrapped newspapers just so some publisher could defraud his advertisers.

For a long time I rationalized that somehow newspapers would survive, that they still retained some inherent advantage over other media formats -- especially the Internet -- that would enable them to survive. I used to think it was portability and ease of use -- until lightweight laptops and Blackberries came along. Then I thought it was the quality of the images -- until I started regularly downloading MPEGs … who needs blurry out-of-register still images bleeding on cheap newsprint when you can watch a Quick-time movie on a 20-inch display?

The last redoubt for the survival of newspaper was, in my mind, accessibility. Hopping from section to section, story lead to story jump, just seemed so much easier than crawling through a long story on a computer screen. Then I saw the first links embedded in blogs. There was simply nothing in the physical world that could ever hope to match the ability to leap through cyberspace from story to story, file to file, with almost infinite extension.

Looking back, it was then that I stopped reading print newspapers.

Needless to say, I still read the news, much of it coming from the newspapers I used to religiously read. But I am not reading the "paper," either literally or figuratively, that the publishers want me to read. Throughout the day, I construct my own newspaper in cyberspace, a real-time assemblage of wire service stories, newspaper features, blogs, bulletin boards, columns, etc. I suspect most of you do, too.

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, 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.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor at large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered the Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."

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