Ink, dead trees and you

On Midday today, host Mike Edgerly will be discussing the future of newspapers with Rick Edmonds, a former reporter, editor and publisher who is now a researcher for the Poynter Institute, and Ken Doctor, former managing editor of the Pioneer Press.

We all know the simple version of the story. The web is displacing newspapers as a mass medium, newspapers therefore are doomed. Various offshoots of that narrative tend to blame the content – because the “MSM” is too liberal/conservative, they’ve alienated their readers who are now turning to the vast cornucopia of perspectives available on the Internet. Or something like that.

But in reality, newspapers don’t have a content problem, they have a business problem.

It’s important to distinguish newspapers as an advertising vehicle and newspaper journalism. Demand for the latter is higher than it’s ever been, but it’s the advertising – the print advertising – that has always paid the bills (and still does). As I’ve noted on this blog before, a good chunk of the journalism you’re reading online is subsidized by those ads. Fewer readers = fewer ads = fewer reporters = fewer readers, and on we go.

The paradox should be familiar to media-watchers by now: Absent a new revenue model for newspapers, most of the newspaper journalism we read online goes away. No such thing as a free ride.

When you compare a printed paper to the web as a means of transmitting information, the printed paper is impractical to the point of being absurd. But, for the sake of discussion, let’s put practicality aside for a moment. Are there things that the printed newspaper does that technology can’t displace? And are those things valuable enough to allow newspapers to continue as a viable commodity?