Dec 16, 2008

Deathbed Star

James Surowiecki, in the current New Yorker, puts the plight of newspapers into perspective better than I have in any of my musings on the subject, explaining how the end is starting to look a lot more like a spectacular flameout than whimpering fadeout:

The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular. The blogosphere, much of which piggybacks on traditional journalism’s content, has magnified the reach of newspapers, and although papers now face far more scrutiny, this is a kind of backhanded compliment to their continued relevance. Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

What does it say, after all, that I read Surowiecki's piece on the subway this morning—The New Yorker being the only dead-tree publication to which I still subscribe—and then found it immediately for free online, all the better to link to it here? His sobering conclusion:
For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

Maybe guilt is one answer: After reading the various Atlantic blogs for years now without paying a dime, I've put an Atlantic subscription on my Christmas list.

UPDATE: A former Atlantic blogger dissents on Surowiecki's economic emphasis, pointing out that the "problem newspapers are having with online isn’t that the readers won’t pay, it’s that the advertisers won’t pay."

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