Newspaper Industry: Evolution or Catastrophe?

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 |  Includes: NYT, TRBCQ
by: Mathew Ingram

There have been — and will no doubt continue to be — plenty of blog posts, magazine articles and even (irony of ironies) the occasional newspaper story written about the death of the newspaper. It’s become almost a cottage industry, poring over the imminent failure of giants such as the New York Times (NYSE:NYT), the Tribune Co. (TRB) empire and even the Wall Street Journal. Some pieces (mostly by journalists) bemoan the changes the media industry is going through, like one I wrote about recently, in which a columnist wrote about how bloggers were killing the industry. Others (thankfully) are a little more optimistic about the evolution of online media.

One of the best pieces I’ve come across in a while comes from Michael Hirschorn, a former editor for New York magazine, Spin and Esquire and a former executive with VH1 who writes regularly for Atlantic Monthly. His piece, entitled End Times, starts out with a bang:

“Virtually all the predictions about the death of old media have assumed a comfortingly long time frame for the end of print … But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business — like, this May?”

The odds of this, as Hirschorn notes, are fairly remote — the company has already mortgaged its headquarters and has other ways of raising money to pay its creditors, including selling the Boston Globe and About.com — but it is far from impossible, given the NYT Co.’s debt level. Hirschorn goes on to talk about how the Times has an incredibly popular website, but (like most newspapers, including the one I work for) the advertising revenue from the site produces a fraction of what the printed product generates.

In order to survive online, most papers would have to slash about 75 to 80 per cent of their costs (i.e., their staff). Would this be the end of journalism as we know it? Not necessarily, says Hirschorn:

What would a post-print Times look like? Forced to make a Web-based strategy profitable, a reconstructed Web site could start mixing original reportage with Times-endorsed reporting from other outlets with straight-up aggregation … In an optimistic scenario, the remaining reporters — now reporters-cum-bloggers, in many cases — could use their considerable savvy to mix their own reporting with that of others, giving us a more integrative, real-time view of the world unencumbered by the inefficiencies of the traditional journalistic form.

As the author notes, this would be a bit like the model used by online-only outlets like The Huffington Post — but with the addition of all those Times reporters:

A healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting. This combination has allowed the HuffPo to digest the news that matters most to its readers at minimal cost, while it focuses resources in the highest-impact areas. What the HuffPo does not have, at least not yet, is a roster of contributors who can set agendas, conduct in-depth investigations, or break high-level news. But the post-print Times still would.

You can quarrel with Hirschorn’s vision of what a post-print Times might look like, but I don’t think it would necessarily mean the end of journalism as we know it. It might even wind up producing better journalism.