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Life After Newspapers

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By Michael Kinsley
Monday, April 6, 2009

Few industries in this country have been as coddled as newspapers. The government doesn't actually write them checks, as it does to farmers and now to banks, insurance companies and automobile manufacturers. But politicians routinely pay court to local newspapers the way other industries pay court to politicians. Until very recently, most newspapers were monopolies, with a special antitrust exemption to help them stay that way. The attorney general has said he is open to additional antitrust exemptions to lift the industry out of today's predicament. The Constitution itself protects the newspaper industry's business from government interference, and the Supreme Court says that includes almost total immunity from lawsuits over its mistakes, like the lawsuits that plague other industries.

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And then along came the Internet to wipe out some of the industry's biggest costs. If you had told one of the great newspaper moguls of the past that someday it would be possible to publish a newspaper without paying anything for paper, printing and delivery, he would not have predicted that this would mean catastrophe for the industry. But that is what it has been.

It is tempting, but too easy, to say the problems of newspapers are their own fault. True enough, the industry missed a whole armada of boats. If newspapers had been smarter, or moved faster, they might have kept the classified ads. They might have invented social networking. But that's all hindsight. I didn't think of these things, nor did you. Judging from Tribune Co., for which I once worked, the typical newspaper executive is a bear of little brain. Until recently, little brain was needed. Even now, to say the newspaper industry has no problems that a busload of geniuses couldn't solve is essentially saying that the industry's problems are insoluable. Or at least insoluable without help.

But help may be on the way. Suggestions are pouring in -- sometimes with checks attached -- that newspapers should become nonprofit foundations, or that foundations should supply investigative teams and foreign bureaus and other expensive accessories. Or that limits should be placed on the nefarious practice of "aggregation" -- Web sites lifting the news, via links, from other sites. Or that customers should be forced, somehow, to pay. Two recent articles in Slate argued that newspapers (1) actually play a fairly unimportant role in our democracy and (2) are in this pickle because of financial shenanigans, not inexorable forces of technology. But let's say these are both wrong: that technology is on the verge of removing some traditionally vital organs of the body politic. What should we do?

How about nothing? Capitalism is a "perennial gale of creative destruction" (Joseph Schumpeter). Industries come and go. A newspaper industry that was a ward of the state or of high-minded foundations would be sadly compromised. And for what?

You may love the morning ritual of the paper and coffee, as I do, but do you seriously think that this deserves a subsidy? Sorry, but people who have grown up around computers find reading the news on paper just as annoying as you find reading it on a screen. (All that ink on your hands and clothes.) If your concern is grander -- that if we don't save traditional newspapers we will lose information vital to democracy -- you are saying that people should get this information whether or not they want it. That's an unattractive argument: shoving information down people's throats in the name of democracy.

But this really isn't a problem. As many have pointed out, more people are spending more time reading news and analysis than ever before. They're just doing it online. For centuries people valued the content of newspapers enough to pay what it cost to produce them (either directly or by patronizing advertisers). We're in a transition, destination uncertain. Arianna Huffington may wake up some morning to find The Washington Post gone forever and the nakedness of her ripoff exposed to the world. Or she may be producing all her own news long before then. Who knows? But there is no reason to suppose that when the dust has settled, people will have lost their appetite for serious news when the only fundamental change is that producing and delivering that news has become cheaper.

Maybe the newspaper of the future will be more or less like the one of the past, only not on paper. More likely it will be something more casual in tone, more opinionated, more reader-participatory. Or it will be a list of favorite Web sites rather than any single entity. Who knows? Who knows what mix of advertising and reader fees will support it? And who knows which, if any, of today's newspaper companies will survive the transition?

But will there be a Baghdad bureau? Will there be resources to expose a future Watergate? Will you be able to get your news straight and not in an ideological fog of blogs? Yes, why not -- if there are customers for these things. There used to be enough customers in each of half a dozen American cities to support networks of bureaus around the world. Now the customers can come from around the world as well.

If General Motors goes under, there will still be cars. And if the New York Times disappears, there will still be news.

Michael Kinsley writes a weekly column for The Post.


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