Chapel Hill: Opinion

August 15, 2014

Bob Wilson: Newspapers still deliver for today’s audiences

When the first edition of the N&O hit the streets of Raleigh on Aug. 12, 1894, its readers could be excused for thinking that the future of newspapers would be the same as their present – everywhere, every day.

When the first edition of the N&O hit the streets of Raleigh on Aug. 12, 1894, its readers could be excused for thinking that the future of newspapers would be the same as their present – everywhere, every day.

And why not? The N&O and other newspapers across America were the original broadband medium long before the term was invented in the digital age. They had no competition except their own kind, and they made money.

Newspapers were an analog product, most of them turned out with the Mergenthaler Linotype, a fire-breathing dragon with a quirky keyboard and a propensity for spitting molten metal.

Neither Josephus Daniels, who with the help of Durham’s Julian Carr bought the N&O at auction, nor anyone else could have imagined that newspapers would be threatened by something they couldn’t see: the electron.

That was the stuff of the telegraph and the telephone, the latter rapidly gaining on the former as a means of near-instant communication. But an Internet they were not and never would be. Digital in 1894 meant Morse Code, the bane of Boy Scouts from Maine to California.

The sad story of what’s happened to American newspapers in the 21st century is well known. Their broadband monopoly has been upended by the digital revolution that arrived in the 1970s. So much for typewriters, Teletypes and Linotypes, the ringing, clicking and clacking machines that were the pulse of the newsroom.

The trappings of analog technology are gone now. Most newsrooms are as quiet as an insurance office and in many respects look like one. The ranks of editors and writers are thinner, circulation zones have shrunk, readers and advertisers have drifted toward new media.

The whole enterprise of producing a 24/7 newspaper is under assault from declining readership and advertising revenue. Losing much of the reliable revenue stream from classified ads to online mega-sites such as Craigslist has been an especially hard blow.

For all the sea of troubles besetting them, you might think newspapers are on the cusp of extinction. I don’t think so.

The Founders valued newspapers as the unofficial fourth branch of government, despite suffering no end of editorial slings and arrows. The fourth-branch idea holds true today, and you can see it in the N&O’s prize-winning investigations of government misconduct. In this respect, newspapers are irreplaceable surrogates for citizens.

Moreover, newspapers are adapting to the changing media environment, and there’s more to come. Neighborhood editions such as The Durham News are one approach for retaining readers with hyper-local coverage.

But the Internet still hangs over newspapers like a cloud. In fact, that’s what it is, an electronic cloud that contains all the Internet was, is and will be.

That’s heady stuff for newspapers to confront. The 24-hour news cycle still dominate them, whereas the Internet shoots news and video to an iPad at the at the speed of light.

There may be a middle way to give newspapers more oxygen. It’s a hybrid of two opposites, newspapers and the Net, that plays on the strength of each while minimizing their weaknesses.

Newspapers are better for delivering long-form information such as investigations to a mass audience. The Internet excels at delivering bursts of real-time information (as does television).

What if newspapers offered a daily rump edition, say four or six pages, at modest cost and combined this mini-paper with free access to the parent paper’s website? That would come close to the best of both worlds for many readers.

The New York Times, which has been under severe financial pressure for years, reportedly is studying viability of a rump-paper with free Web access at a subscription price well below that of the full paper.

If the Times or another paper tries the hybrid model and it works, you’ll see more of it. The ol’ fishwrapper ain’t done for, not yet.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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