Monday, February 23, 2009

Liquid Crystals by the Barrelful*

I did something last week I don’t normally do: I watched Charlie Rose.

I don’t know what compelled me to stop my clicking thumb but, for some reason known only to my thumb, it paused just long enough for me to hear a snippet of what Charlie and his guest were talking about.

The guest was Mark Andreessen, one of the founders of Netscape along with Jim Clark (he provided the coin). What Andreessen said was something along the lines of “The New York Times needs to kill its print edition.”

“Huh? What? You bastard! You shut the hell up! What do you mean ‘kill the print edition’ ”?

Yeah, that was the former reporter in me taking offense at any unbeliever (i.e., non journalist) who’d dare suggest newspapers are dead/dying and that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. So I decided to watch a little more of his heresy so I could be properly superior and mock him more effectively in this space.

You know what happened during the next 30 minutes? I was converted. Three years after leaving journalism proper I’ve now forsaken my chosen craft like Judas discovering he’s short on pocket change and Jonesing for hooker in the temple.

How did this happen? Within the last few months I know I’ve commented to someone something to the effect, “Newspapers will never die, people like reading an actual newspaper too much for them to go away.”

But do we really? After years and years of free newspapers on my desk every morning, and a subscription to the WaPo after I moved to Arlington, I haven’t gotten a paper at my door in more than a year. A big part of this is I just didn’t have time to read through the whole paper, and because some asshole neighbor of mine used to steal my WaPo at least once a week, but even that reinforces my recent conversion.

My asshole neighbor can’t steal my online paper. Well, he could steal my internet service, but he can’t keep me from reading my papers online. Yep, papers. I don’t just read the WaPo, along with it and the NYT my list of online papers also includes the Raleigh News and Observer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Houston Chronicle, Beaumont Enterprise, San Francisco Chronicle, the Guardian as well as CNN, ESPN, MSNBC and the BBC.

So as much as I used to enjoy taking the Sports section with me during my Sunday constitutional, the truth is that’s really not a very comfortable place to read the paper. Your ass generally falls asleep within a couple of articles.

Then, right after Andreessen finished talking, I was buying a tour book for my niece who’s going to Spain this summer, and I started clicking around Amazon’s Kindle store.

Holy. Fucking! Crap!@!@!@! That thing is cool!!!

Now I don’t know if I’m ready to drop $350 on one of the new Kindles, but I’m damn tempted to do my part for the economy. Those things are sweet.

They are also the keen (a lamentation for the dead uttered in a loud wailing voice, or sometimes in a wordless cry – according to Webster’s, what a great word) of the newspaper industry. Instead of getting your online paper for free, you can get your WaPo and NYT delivered directly and wirelessly to your Kindle every morning ($9.99/month for the WaPo and $13.99 for the NYT). It’s still cheaper than what you’re paying for the print edition and I’m guessing more convenient since you can carry it with you everywhere.

Seriously, as soon as these things have half or even a quarter of the market penetration like the iPod, the physical manifestation of your favorite newspapers and magazines are done. Never to be seen again.

If you were a newspaper owner and could get rid of your entire production operation (printing) and distribution network (delivery drivers) and focus on putting that money in your pocket, why the hell wouldn’t you? It’s not like you’re going to pay your reporters or editors more (trust me on this), so why not just get rid of the paper version of your paper and send it off through the ether every morning at 4:45 a.m.?

The news business is a glorious one. A business filled with excitement, pride, sadness, public service and everlasting glory (for some). But, like all businesses, they have to change with the times. Why are newspapers still putting out words on paper – the same product they’ve been delivering for 400 years?

Computer and technology companies (and any company that wants to be really successful) reinvent themselves every 18 to 24 months or they’re history. As sad as it makes me to say this, I think it’s time for us to bury our Dead Tree Editions.

* There’s an old saying to describe the power of a newspaper: “Never pick a fight with people who buy their ink by the barrel.”


Lisa said...

I like an actual newspaper, but the truth is, I read them less and less, and I do believe they'll be obsolete soon. We get the Sunday NYT, but I don't read it cover to cover. And I get the WSJ and a trade paper at work, but don't read them daily - but do read a whole lot online.

Malnurtured Snay said...

The only paper that I actually read AS a paper is The Express, and largely that's because it's free and plentiful. I read most of my news online, and it seems to be that's the way to go.

FoggyDew said...

Lisa - I think we all actually like newspapers, but you're right, many of us are reading them less and less. There is something nice about the feel of the paper in your hand, but we also used to like the feel of vinyl LP records.

Snay - One of my thoughts I didn't express (so to speak) was in my mind a good model would be a free paper like the Express you could peruse on your way to work - in an environmentally responsible manner - and the electronically delivered version to your e-reader waiting for you at your desk.

LiLu said...

I agree with still liking the idea of a newspaper, especially on a lazy Sunday morning... but it's just not practical anymore. Not when you can sign online and get a story from 4 different sources for free.

HKW said...

The only time I read a paper in hand is at my parents. I've never subscribed to a newspaper and read everything on-line. Primarily for variety at no cost and the images in newspapers or even on TV are often violent. It's a lot easier to close a browser on the computer than turn the page/ignore a violent photo. I scare easily.

FoggyDew said...

LiLu - And you'll get all that newsprint all over your new snuggie. That would be a total shame. Totally.

HKW - From what I remember from my time in CenTex, the American-Statesman isn't the greatest paper in the whole wide world. I remember long discussions about what pictures should run and which ones shouldn't. Unfort, the rule is still "If it bleeds it leads."

Denise Smith said...

I freaking LOVE my morning newspaper routine. But in complete honest seriousness, I confess that after reading this I am going straight to check out the Kindle. This is the best unintentional product endorsement I have ever read.
The deal breaker for me will be the weight of the thing. Driving right back down the road of conspicous consumption--I gather these things are trendy?--I feel like a good American!

FoggyDew said...

Denise - Welcome! I too loved my morning paper, free on my desk every day. I never meant to endorse the Kindle2 (which went on sale yesterday, Feb. 24), but the things are pretty cool. My brother has a first gen Kindle and loves it.

Oh, and I checked, the K2 weighs in at 10 ounces, is .33 inches thick and holds 1,500 books.

Seriously, not a product endorsement. Just the facts.

[F]oxymoron said...

I no longer pick up the paper... ok,I grab the Express almost daily, but that is only because it is easily available and not too cumbersome.

When we have the ability to easily manipulate and sling electronic article excerpts from one location to another, that is when newspapers will really die.

FoggyDew said...

Foxy - We kind of do that now, don't we? Emailing links hither and yon and to and fro. If the Express were to use even more condensed articles with goto directions for the e-version, that'd be pretty cool. Almost like a long-form table of contents.

Jonathan Guyer said...

life without the print edition? what's the point??

what will separate the examiners, inquirers, telegraphs, and other daily editions from blogs? think about it.