Commentary

Why Newspapers, Books, and Records are on the Rise

“The Digital Scramble” by Timothy J McNulty

One thing I’ve always loved about a newspaper — the black ink on newsprint — is the serendipity, the chance of being informed of some delicious turn of events, delighted by some aspect of civilization, or perhaps an appreciation of an unknown person or group. I love the chance to learn and be surprised when I turn the page. 

       I understand that I can achieve the same result online, that the internet gives me infinitely more choice than the broadsheet pages of even the thickest newspaper. I’m not a dinosaur. Well, maybe I am, but I believe there is a real distinction between the values of old media and the unfulfilled expectations of new media. 

      What has changed in this rush of mass-market media to embrace the web and tablet is not just the delivery system. The industry lemmings have shown a profound uninterested in providing quality and, if it doesn’t sound to arch, inspiration. Instead of recalibrating, many just retrenched, afraid perhaps that their traditional consumers had gone stupid…

      I’m partly responsible for old media’s apparent demise, of course. I still read newspapers in print form, but I also check Google News and online news websites…It was a slippery slope…I began reading books on my new Kindle…I essentially gave up renting DVDs from the Tower Records store at the end of my block in Chicago when I signed up for Netflix…Eventually Tower Records closed in London and the whole enterprise went bankrupt; it couldn’t compete with music-sharing programs such as Napster and later Apple’s digital behemoth, iTunes. Last year, my local Barnes & Noble bookstore closed and three months ago the Borders bookstore that was across the street closed as well. Each time, the most experienced salespeople, and the most informed, seemed to be the first to go.

    Many American media outlets learned too late that they could no longer pretend to be all things to all people. They should have been looking at strengthening the core of their businesses rather than trying to compete with discount places and the endless opportunistic offers from the internet. Access to information and media products became ubiquitous and fast and publishers grew wary that they would not be able to compete in the same way. 

     American media has been struggling to adjust to a digital world for more than a decade. With blinding arrogance, publishers first failed to embrace the new technology and then they over-corrected, succumbing to the idea that the masses only want to be entertained in short bursts — a news flash, a celebrity photo, a new dieting tip. 

      With readership of newspapers in steady decline and, more importantly, paid advertising in free fall, the publishers finally turned to the internet and pretended that was the only future imaginable. Tweet it, post it on Facebook and, tab-dah! you’re back into profitability.

     They figured the new business model with its website as a primary force, would allow them to cut back on staff and newsprint. Instead of reporters and editors, they hired “producers,” usually young and underpaid, who were knowledgeable about “search engine optimization” and could easily cut and paste articles to fit any platform.

     And, in the US at least, the mantra was that all news had to be “local, local, local.” Such thinking played well in a country with a long-established isolationist streak. It also played well with publishers who wanted to save money and who hired consultants to “rethink” their business models; really just a way of saying: look for ways to cut…

     But enough with the doomsaying. I believe that Quality Will Out and that much of what has been lost will eventually reappear, albeit in a different form. Perhaps it’s the nature of media (and media critics) to be short-sighted, but I believe there is a basic, never-ending hunger from costumers to trust quality and truth whether it’s in news, magazines, TV or the sales of CDs, DVDs and importantly, books. 

     There is no question that we are still in transition. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back now or perhaps it hasn’t even finished its first swing yet. Not just in newspapers but in almost all media. Some papers are discovering that those likely to quit their newspaper habit have already done so, and those who remain are willing to pay a bit more. The tastes of informed consumers do shift, but they are more a matter of degree than tectonic changes.

     In the rush to digital, some thought that their customers only wanted to skim the news. That’s undoubtedly true for many, but there is and always has been a more patient consumer base that will keep up sales for some publications. What I hope to see in the future isn’t a quaint record or video shop, nor an antiquarian bookstore on every corner. But what I see in other countries, in the shops of Berlin and Tokyo, in the small and growing newspapers in Kenya and Mumbai, and even in the internet cafes of Shanghai, is a  commitment to free expression and a good product…I’m still willing to pay to get four newspapers delivered to my door…

     I don’t think CDs and DVDs are coming back in any significant way, but I don’t believe for a minute that newspapers and books are going to disappear. They are tangible objects of our commitment and I expect them to be around no matter how many electronic bits are floating through the atmosphere. The value I see is not in circular discs of plastic and folded or bound pages of paper so much as the quality they once represented, and I hope they will again. 

As Seen in Issue 47. volume 05 October 2011 of Monocle Magazine.

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