Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Newspaper Survival in the Digital Age

Newspapers are dinosaurs.

Those of us who were brought up on print still love our newspapers. We will probably continue reading them in varying degrees until the day we die. Indeed, it’s been said that the best hope for the newspaper industry is Americans over 50.

Which means the industry in its present form has got maybe another 30 years before it’s the stuff of legend.

We’ll remember newspapers in print the same way we pine for the fresh milk that used to be delivered to our family's doorstep every winter morning. We’ll recall the scrunch of a morning paper being read at the breakfast table as we do the sound of eggs frying and the smell of Pop Tarts fresh from the toaster.

But none of the kids born today will grow up to say that their first job was having a newspaper route.

With the possible exception of a couple national dailies and a scattering of excellent local papers such as this one, print versions of newspapers will by mid-century be like old leather bellows. Cracked and creaky, good conversation pieces, and excellent for starting fires.

Anyone who thinks otherwise obviously does not have an iPad.

I will spare you a litany of the many wonderful things about the leading tablet computer. Let’s just say the iPad represents the kind of transformation that occurred when television went from three channels in black and white, to 50 channels in color.

Like cable TV, the iPad makes available lots of new, highly disposable junk. But it also opens up a bright and engrossing new world of knowledge and entertainment.

Already the possibilities of the tablet form -- the ability to go well beyond the inherent restrictions of print -- are being realized by pioneers such as Al Gore. He has authored/compiled/directed “Our Choice” for the iPad. This multimedia sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth" is a deeply involving documentary/book/movie. Call it a “docubookie” or “boovietary.”

The iPad also delivers a pretty satisfying version of newspapers. For example, it pulls in the New York Times at one-third the price of the print version, with the convenience of home delivery you can't get in
Addison County for the print version.

The online Times (about $20 a month for iPad access) affords access to an array of video, blogs, way more photos than can make it into print, mashups of sound and data visualizations about radio programs, and ingeniously interactive maps.

It’s enough to make this old newspaper guy wish he could sit down at a computer with a case of Red Bull and write code for the next 48 hours.

Even before the availability of the iPad, many of us had been reading newspapers on our computers for more than a decade. We’ve been guiltily guzzling the news for free from the websites of the Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald or the New York Times, when we used to pay 75 cents or more a day to read them in print form.

The result for some newspapers has been an explosion in readership – the Times has never been so influential or so widely read – and a frightening decline in paid subscriptions and the ad revenues tied to print.

Many historians and PhD candidates will spend the next few decades debating where newspapers went wrong in the digital age.

Newspaper companies felt they had no choice but to offer their content for free online, in a race for "eyeballs" that would supposedly bring with them a fresh, mountainously large source of ad revenue. But it turns out to be impossible to charge the same amount for advertising online as for print ads. And online, newspapers are seem by many Internet users as just one of a gazillion choices.

The Wall Street Journal has for years been successfully charging its readers for online content. Recently the Times put up a "paywall" that sharply limits how many articles readers can see for free online. The failure or success of this strategy will likely determine the paper's fate, and perhaps that of newspapers as a medium.

In the meantime, regional daily papers such as the Burlington Free Press and Rutland Herald face an uncertain fate. In Vermont and everywhere else, readers increasingly turn to other sources for news and entertainment, and longtime subscribers are getting older.

Cities such as Detroit now lack a daily paper, and once great papers such as the Los Angeles Times are sad shadows of their former selves.

The happy exceptions to this startling decline, I hasten to add, are some weekly and twice-weekly papers.

That’s partly due to the lack of digital alternatives. If you want to know what’s going on in the world, you can get your news from print, broadcast media, and online sources. If you want to know what's going on in Addison County, you simply need to read the Addison Independent.

It's true that it is possible to read that newspaper online, if you pay just a little extra. The paper has, quite wisely I think, decided not to give away its content online for free. But except among snowbirds who keep track of Addison County news from their winter perches in Florida, the overwhelming majority of readers get the local paper in print form.

Vermonters have a knack for embracing the best of things new and old. In the former category is Gov. Peter Shumlin’s initiative to bring high-speed Internet service to every Vermont household. We hold on to the old pleasures of print because it still fit this state's identity. Even in the age of the iPad, the Independent and other Vermont newspapers like it remain a deeply embedded part of the regional culture.

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