As someone who writes about the future of printed books, I’m often asked to weigh in on the future of another popular printed medium — newspapers. Up until now I’ve only broached the matter offhandedly, but this month’s Mother Jones prompted me to consider the matter more seriously.
It happened after a friend of mine alerted me to MJ’s “Exhibit” spread called, “Black and White and Dead All Over.” According to the piece, about 20% of newspaper journalists have lost their jobs in just the last eight years. And from January to May 2009, “100 newspapers shut down and 9,000 newspaper jobs were lost.”
Usually I’m skeptical whenever I hear about a medium’s impending death. It’s pretty clear from the spread, however, that newspapers are suffering terribly right now. This is due in no small part to proliferating digital communications technologies, combined with news agencies’ growing reliance on untrained grassroots “iJournalism.”
The irony is that newspaper publishers also see digital technologies as a savior. New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., for one, believes that Amazon.com’s new Kindle DX e-reader will “enhance our ability to reach millions of readers” — especially those for whom the printed version of the paper is unavailable. No surprise, Amazon is marketing the device heavily for its news reading capabilities, having partnered with the Times and other major U.S. papers.
Before I get to the crux of the issue, some disclosures are in order. I come from something of a newspaper family. My late sister Anne was an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times, FL, and before that she was a reporter and editorial writer for the Time Herald-Record in Middletown, NY. Way back when she was editor-in-chief of her college newspaper at Binghamton University, Pipe Dream. I freelanced with the Record as a photojournalist in 1993 and interned with the paper in 1994. I also worked on my college newspaper, The New Hampshire, throughout my undergraduate studies. I even seriously contemplated becoming a professional photojournalist before deciding to pursue a career as a university professor.
In other words, I’m a friend of newspapers — and by that I mean, of printed newspapers. But I’m also part of the problem in that I now I do most of my news reading online. I cannot remember the last time that I actually paid for daily news.
The prospect of the newspaper’s replacement with costly digital e-reading devices, such as Kindle, seems a poor future for me indeed. I say this not because I fetishize ink and paper. As I make clear throughout The Late Age of Print, I positively do not. Instead, I worry about the economic and political effects of a business model in which stand-alone e-readers become a — or maybe even the — primary delivery vehicle for daily news.
The Kindle DX costs $489. It’s smaller, less feature-laden sibling costs $359. Either price seems to me to pose a huge barrier to entry when it comes to acquiring one’s daily news. Add to that the cost of one or more digital newspaper subscriptions — you cannot buy an individual day’s paper via Amazon — and you’ve dropped the better part of a grand inside of a year.
Beyond the reporting, what made printed newspapers great was their price. Most cost under a dollar a day when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, and many even hovered around 50 cents. In my grandparents’ day you could pick most papers up for around a nickel. Daily news was cheap — indeed, democratically so. Nearly everyone could afford to partake of the affairs of the day, and many did so regularly.
But if Kindle becomes a primary platform for daily news, then the newspaper industry will have all but abandoned this longstanding democratic ethos. What’s the point of a fourth estate if only the economically advantaged are the ones reading the news?
So here’s a radical proposal for Amazon and the newspaper companies to consider. If your survival plan involves a switch-over to digital e-readers like Kindle, then lower your prices! Significantly reduce the economic barriers to entry and create an economy of scale. Perhaps the e-reader even could be sold at a loss, with the understanding that a portion of all newspaper subscription revenue would be paid back to the hardware manufacturer.
The point is, you don’t save journalism by making it more exclusive.