Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Death Of Print Journalism

I was watching The Daily Show the other day and Jon Stewart was interviewing Walter Isaacson about his Time magazine cover story "How to Save Your Newspaper". I found myself intermittently agreeing and disagreeing with what Isaacson was proposing but it was this statement towards the end of the interview that really caught my ear:

If we had been getting our news for the past four hundred years from guys sort of talking on some electronic box or on some computer and somebody finally said, "Hey, I can take all of that, I can put it on paper, I'll deliver it to your doorstep, you can bring it to the backyard or the bathtub or the bus," you'd say, "Wow, this paper, that's a great technology. That's going to replace TV and the Internet".
Yes, he actually said that. Apparently Isaacson believes that print and digital media are fairly comparable to each other on most levels of information relevance and dissemination, and that it was just by an odd quirk of fate that paper happened to come along before computers. Can you guess which one of these industries he's been working in for the past few decades? This guy sounds like an ink-stained dinosaur.

Isaacson's problem with the Internet is that there is too much free content out there that he thinks publications and journalists should be charging for, even if the charge is to only be a tiny one. His plan for doing this is to institute a system of electronic micropayments:
A person who wants one day's edition of a newspaper or is enticed by a link to an interesting article is rarely going to go through the cost and hassle of signing up for a subscription under today's clunky payment systems. The key to attracting online revenue, I think, is to come up with an iTunes-easy method of micropayment. We need something like digital coins or an E-ZPass digital wallet — a one-click system with a really simple interface that will permit impulse purchases of a newspaper, magazine, article, blog or video for a penny, nickel, dime or whatever the creator chooses to charge.
He goes on to admit that many similar payment systems have been tried and failed in the past but he believes that the necessity of saving the news media at this precarious point in its history will inspire a workable system. I applaud his intentions as I too enjoy and greatly benefit from good journalism but I fear that he is either naive, ignorant or both.

It's understandable that Isaacson and his brethren in the print media would want to continue to profit from their work as they have in the past but that option just might not be in the cards anymore. The limits and boundaries of intellectual property rights are constantly being tested by the culture of sharing on the Internet and the explosion of new technologies that has allowed this culture to flourish, and I suspect that many in the print media are very reluctant to accept this paradigm shift within their industry despite overwhelming evidence that it is indeed gasping for air. Personally, I don't think print media will die altogether but it will wither and shrink considerably over the next few decades, and it will have to make some major changes to both its business model and its reportage if it expects to stay relevant in a digitized 21st century.

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