Fearing for the death of newspapers is a bit like fearing for the death of vinyl records or, now, CDs in the face of Blu-ray disks.
That might seem like sacrilege from a lifetime print journalist and the former editor of two newspapers, and I don’t want to downplay the emotional attachment of many people to the romance of newspapers, including my friend and business partner, Eric Beecher, and my friend and former colleague on The Age, Michael Gawenda.
But really, newspapers are just vehicles to disseminate journalism and the advertising needed to pay for that journalism, they are not the journalism itself. LPs used to be the way we listened to music until a better way came along. There are still vinyl tragics who still think LPs are the best way to listen to music, but not enough to make it worthwhile for anyone to make them.
In fact newspapers are a very poor way to send or receive the written word, or any sort of information for that matter. 150 years ago they were the height of new technology but now they are archaic, and in decline for good reason. They are limited in size, they only come once a day, they’re dirty, they use enormous energy and resources both in their production and delivery, and they cost a lot.
They have two advantages (I can’t think of any more): they are very portable and ink on paper is easier on the eye than screens.
I think it is obvious that now that the website has been invented, the disadvantages of newspapers become more obvious to the customers and vastly outweigh the advantages, just as the clunky disadvantages of the VCR came to outweigh its advantages as soon as the DVD was invented.
As someone who has managed both a journalism website and newspapers, I can tell you that the former is by far the best way to distribute journalism, apart from the portability thing perhaps, although my thin laptop is as portable as any newspaper. Websites contain more stuff, they are instant, they don’t require fossil fuels to deliver them (or not much anyway) and they’re cheap to produce.
That cheapness means that the production of journalism has been hugely democratised: no longer do you need a lot of capital to go into business producing and disseminating journalism. In fact there are thousands of single-person “newspapers” now, called blogs, and huge variety of other sizes.
The big problem is the mass business model. Newspaper proprietors over the years have used the protection of high barriers to entry to gouge super profits from their customers and build even more capital with which to defend their turf.
This has paid for some pretty good journalism, mixed in with a lot of rubbish designed to further the vested interests of advertisers and proprietors, or simply to fill up the space between the ads with PR material. Overall, the “rivers of gold” allowed newspapers companies to employ more journalists than they needed — and still need.
Now a new business model for delivering journalism to customers needs to be found.
Eric and Michael are castigating Fairfax for just going the slash and burn route and not using more imagination. But I think they both agree that however imaginative Fairfax is, the company will have to employ fewer journalists in future than it does now — that this is not a matter of choice, just a matter of how to get there.
When vinyl records gave way to CDs the record companies made more money because the cost of production was lower and they were able to charge more for the product because it sounded better.
That is not happening in the transition from newspapers to websites, even though websites are better and cheaper than newspapers. The cost of production falls dramatically, it’s true, but the price — cover price and advertising rates — falls even more — to zero in the case of cover price. Margins are squeezed. A lower cost model is required.
Trying to “save” newspapers — that is, distributing journalism on dirty, inefficient, archaic and expensive slabs of paper — is not the answer. The customers now want to pay less for the product, so we have to make it for less. It’s as simple as that.