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Can newspapers survive in Internet era?

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By Cathy Young

As media giants totter, battered by the Internet and the economic crisis, saving the newspapers has become a hot topic. It is richly ironic that the online media, which have both greatly facilitated the work of journalists and expanded their readership, have also left many unemployed. Many are expressing concern that the death of journalism as we know it will leave our culture ill-informed - blogs are good for opinion and fact-checking, but they are no substitute for original reporting - and endanger democracy by removing a vital part of its checks and balances.

The debate revolves around two key questions. One, does society truly need the professional media? Two, how can professional journalism survive in a new media environment?

On the first question, my answer is a resounding, though possibly self-serving "yes." While I am a fan of blogs, I believe they work best when the "mainstream media" and the blogs complement each other. Otherwise, the blogosphere is all too liable to disintegrate into shrill partisan screaming and irresponsible rumor-mongering.

The responsible media do have a vital role to play in a democracy. However, the mainstream media's defenders would do well to acknowledge some of their failings. A recent editorial in The New Republic laments that "press-bashing" - whether from right-wing media critics such as former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg, or leftists on the Huffington Post site who accuse the media of conformism - has created a "poisonous atmosphere," undermining the authority of the press.

But what if the critiques have merit? Goldberg's anti-media broadsides may be over the top, but his basic argument - that the liberal politics of most journalists influence media coverage, not because journalists don't strive to be objective but because their cultural milieu influences their perceptions of objectivity - has a great deal of truth to it.

Few people doubt that Barack Obama got breaks from the press. And there are well-documented instances of media bias leading to sloppy reporting, with journalists all but recycling the press releases of advocacy groups on such issues as domestic violence, homelessness, or the perils of gun ownership. The press has been the target of unfair criticism, but it cannot be absolved of blame for the damage to its reputation.

That said, the media's present financial woes have little to do with its real or perceived lack of balance, and everything to do with the economics of publishing. News corporations have always subsidized serious reporting and commentary with revenues from other functions of the newspapers, such as classified advertising or sports news. Today, most of those functions have been diverted to other media, including the Internet.

Promising solutions include non-profit programs to support investigative reporting and news analysis. Just because we need professional journalism does not mean that it has to come only in the traditional package of the newspaper. Independent journalists, working as individuals or as teams, may thrive if they can have access to resources outside the conventional structure of a media organization.

Far more controversial is the quest to get readers to pay for online content. In fact, there is no good reason that online content should be free, other than "people are used to it." Is it impossible to persuade people to pay for something they are used to getting for free? Not at all. Online music downloads are a good example; so is television. While TV had been free since its inception, large numbers of people proved willing to pay for cable and digital television.

A subscriber-only model for individual websites has repeatedly proven unworkable. (The Wall Street Journal - a notable exception - gets people to pay for financial information while providing most editorial content free of charge.) The main reason it cannot work is that people who read news and commentary on the Internet usually get their content from many different sites.

That is the great advantage of the Internet: you can go from The Washington Post to the London Times at the click of a mouse, and follow a link within one story to read another. If every news site started hiding its content behind a pay wall, reader would face either huge bills or greatly restricted choices, and many would seek to circumvent the subscription requirements.

Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time, recently got into the fray with a proposal to make web media content available for micropayments similar to iTunes, "a one-click system with a really simple interface." If you see a link to an interesting article on, say, The San Jose Mercury News website, you don't have to buy a $20 subscription to the publication - you can pay a nickel or a dime to read the individual item.

While this is a promising idea, it has substantial drawbacks. Those nickels and dimes can add up, and if your monthly bill is high enough, you may think twice the next time you feel like clicking on a link.

A better approach may be to make news and analysis content available only through media portals or carriers, similar to cable television providers. A subscription to a carrier would give access to any news site (newspaper, magazine, blog) that is a part of its package. The subscription price could vary depending on level of consumption: say, $20 a month for 40 hours of media access, $40 for 100 hours, and so on. Or the cost of a subscription could vary depending on which publications are included, while content outside the customer's standard package could be available for one-time micropayments. Different media portals could experiment with different fee scales. This would allow people to surf the Web without having to ponder each click of a link. Revenues could be distributed to individual websites depending on their readership.

This strategy would still require a drastic departure from Internet business as usual. The migration of participating sites behind media-portal walls would have to be coordinated. Some policing would be needed to ensure that premium content is not reposted on free-access sites. This could make the carriers look like bad guys, at least in the eyes of those for whom free online content has become an entitlement if not an article of faith.

Yet, if there is a will to adopt the media-portal subscription model, there will be a way. Even in the age of celebrity gossip sites and reality shows, millions of Americans still respect real journalism enough to be willing to pay to help keep it alive.

Provided, of course, that the media work harder to deserve and retain that respect.

© RealClearPolitics

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

13 Comments
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Despite the America-centric slant to this article and references to American cultural politics (yawn), this is actually a very important issue to all countries. The problem is that in the pre-internet days nobody was really paying for the content in papers and magazines, they were paying for the delivery of the content. The delivery paid for the cost of gathering and putting together the content. Now that business model is dead. It doesn't matter what your politics are, just a question of who is going to do the job for you and how. And if people think a weak and passive media is a good idea, I can think of one good example for you to show it isn't. Hmmm, what country could that be?

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Advantages of a hard copy newspaper - no batteries/ power needed, no user ID/ password to access the pages, no fear of hacking, no need for updates/ backups/ arcane security settings, easy to bookmark pages, can be shared easily with multiple readers of different pages at the same time; when finished with can be used for packing material, fire starter, bedding material/ insulation, fish and chip wrapper, cat or dog litter; if soaked with water can be dried out, if dropped can still be read, if pages are broken can be spliced/ stuck together and still be legible, can be archived or recycled... can even be written on again with large coloured pencils or ink!

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Newspapers should never have put their content online for free. I still enjoy newspapers. Not so much in Japan, but in my home country, I always look forward to the big Sunday papers when I can spend hours just relaxing and reading them.

Newspapers have many attractions for me. For example, I would miss my daily crossword; I like to clip articles and save them and there is no replacement for good old-fashioned comics pages.

Finally, I do agree with the author of the commentary above about blogs. They are no substitute for good reporting.

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I don't think the "news" ever made any money for newspapers... it was the advertising that brought in the money. In the "information age" seems all the newspapers have the same info... that which is now online, what's missing is the local news... with the exception of murder and mayhem very little local news has been printed by my "hometown" newspaper in years.. that includes the online service.... that and most of the "news" seems to push certain political slants... I suppose TV "news" is the same.

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Newspapers are more beneficial for this modern day!! And besides at the rate the economy is going, some of the new generations may not be able to afford a computer. And who wants to miss out on all those cool comic pages and crossword puzzles!

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It's a pain lugging a laptop into the bathroom. And PDAs and pocket PCs have such small screens.

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e-book readers are the future. the amount of compressed plain text that could be stored on the average ipod is mind-blowing.

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I haven´t bought a newspaper in ages. Besides all the news being free online, you can watch their development minute by minute - which is somehow a neurotic thing. But the real problem with me: it´s impossible to read a newspaper inside the crowded trains, even with the open space around me, gaijin, - I don´t know why newspapers haven´t yet realised they would sell more in a compact, magazine-size format. Newspapers and maganizes need to reinvent themselves, fast.

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I love newspapers, but if they want to survive, they are going to have to become more relevant. This means not just reprinting blurbs from the Associated Press, but doing investigative reporting and increasing local content. Or they can go the porn route, like the British press.

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jonnyboy - I'm with you. When's Amazon going to get the Kindle over here?

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"Relevency" is the key. Your media must mean something to your buyer. Does your media make your buyer money. Does your media bring your buyer happiness, ideas etc. And do you identify your media to your relevency.

Liberal rags that just rehash the common idea will be quickly irrelevent. They are their own enemy.

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Newspapers (the print medium) -No. (do you see clay tablets getting used in any significant way?) Professional journalists -Yes. Good riddance to smudged newspapers.

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Newpapers can survive,they must get more globalised in viewpoints,like the internet media ,which is borderless.

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