The Sky is Falling!

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It’s been a busy week for the “death of newspapers” camp. We’ve had Michael Hirschorn’s Atlantic Monthly piece forecasting the demise of The New York Times by May, Jack Shafer weighs in at Slate, James Surowiecki in The New Yorker, Clay Shirky raises some very interesting points, and today Fred Wilson joins the chorus with My Focus Group of One.

A simple Google search for terms like “death of newspapers” or “end of print” will yield millions of results. Some media websites and blogs have “death watch” sections of their sites, ready to ring the bell and announce a new heavyweight champion. Yet we’ve been doing this since the early 1800s–dishing condemnations of past technologies and rushing to announce the incarnation of the next big thing.

Let’s travel back to a brisk morning on March 22nd, 1876. New Yorkers picked up their morning newspapers (yes, print) to discover news of a new form of communication currently being demonstrated in Boston and New York, a novel device that was destined to change the way humans interacted.

On page 4 of The New York Times, the article begins by describing this new device, currently being called the “Telephone,” and the exploring the possibilities “The Telephone could afford humanity.” The writer quickly jumps into a description of the device, which “…somewhat resembles a Morse instrument…with an ear-trumpet and a curious collection of miscellaneous machinery.” As the article continues, we are offered a variety of potential uses for this “instrument,” including the possibility of listening to music or hearing the “cooing voice of a female lecturer,” but as we read on, the writer makes the not-so-obvious point about what people will say about this new technology: “The universal use of the telephone will, of course, be viewed with disapprobation by the sound-producing part of the community, just as the introduction of labor-saving machines was met by the hostility of the laboring classes.” We are warned that “no man will leave his own study” or “will care to go to Fourteenth street and to spend the evening in a hot and crowded building. In like manner, many persons will prefer to hear lectures and sermons in the comfort and privacy of their own rooms, rather than go to the church or the lecture-room.” As these warnings continue, we are told that …the telephone, by bringing music and ministries into every home, will empty the concert-halls and the churches.”

Pretty dramatic. No?

A little over a year later, on November 7, 1877, on page 4 of The New York Times sits an article entitled “The Phonograph,” which opens with a very familiar vision: “The telephone was justly regarded as an ingenious invention when it was first brought before the public, but it is destined to be entirely eclipsed by the new invention of the phonograph. The former transmitted sound. The latter bottles it up for future use….With the aid of the phonograph, sermons can be stored away in the cellar, to be brought out years hence with their tones unimpaired by age.”

The writer makes a noble attempt to explain the technology behind the this new invention, and then goes on to state the obvious, again: “It is evident that this invention will lead to important changes in our social customs. The lecturer will no longer require his audience to meet him in a public hall, but will sell his lectures in quart bottles, at fifty cents each.” The writer continues, with the claim that “…there is good reason to believe that if the phonograph proves to be what its inventor claims that, both book-making and reading will fall into disuse. Why should we print a speech when it can be bottled, and why would [the next generation] learn to read when some skillful elocutionist merely repeats a novel aloud in the presence of a phonograph. Instead of libraries filled with combustible books, we shall have vast storehouses of bottled authors.”

Accusations of people “never leaving their house again” or books and the written word “ceasing to exist” didn’t start with the telephone or the phonograph. These assumptions come with each new invention or technology. Printing presses, telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, radios, moving images–are all born into a world where their antiquated predecessors are soon-to-be deceased forms of information delivery. They are the new, and the old will have no place in this novel world. That is, until the next thing comes along.

The way we tell stories and consume content inevitably changes with the birth of these new technologies. The voice of the predecessor doesn’t instantly die when a new form of communication arrives, it begins to morph and adapt to the changing climate, or as the current pundits aptly predict, it won’t survive. But take a 10,000 foot view–we’re just in the infancy of this wonderful melded form of journalism and media, where each form of broadcast borrows from the other as a method of storytelling. We’re not going to wake up tomorrow to find out that newspapers no longer exist. Yes, in the long run, a large contingent won’t survive, and the ones that do will tell stories very differently than they do today, carving out a new, ever-changing narrative. But this evolutionary process is going to take time. History tells us so.

  • John

    “But this evolutionary process is going to take time. History tells us so.”

    History also tells us that businesses with no profit and an outdated business model won’t last long.

  • Kurt Cagle

    Nick,

    I don’t think that anyone, from Clay Shirkey on down, is predicting the demise of the newspaper per se. Newspapers in general satisfy what I call the bathroom principle – you can take a copy of a newspaper into the bathroom and read it while doing your business, but so long as the Internet is tied into fairly expensive delivery vehicles that react poorly with water, you won’t see websurfing there. This is admittedly an extreme example, but it illustrates the primary benefits that newspapers have always had – low cost, moderately high signal to noise ratio, relative timeliness, and portability.

    What I think people are reacting to right now is whether the existing newspaper business model is sustainable, and the answer to this is increasingly “no”.

    In the current business model, newspapers are advertising flyers that happen to have editorial content in the spaces that can’t be stuffed with ads. Unfortunately, lately parts of that advertising model keep drifting off to separate universes serves by the Internet – classifieds end up as Monster, Craig’s List, eBay, mySpace, FaceBook and so forth. House listings (for what little market now exists) increasingly end up on the web as well. What this means is that the mechanism for subsidizing the editorial content is coming under fire.

    Personally, I think that what’s happening in publishing right now is that bloated expectations for profit are coming against the realities of reduced advertising revenues. Moreover the voracious consortia that have been buying up all of the smaller papers (the ones that actually had been surviving reasonably well on local ad revenues in their respective markets) in expectations that they would continue with outsized profits are now facing a severe reality check, especially as many effectively used the papers themselves as collateral for highly leveraged loans.

    The problem, of course, is that by incorporating these papers into the bigger corporation, they have also effectively eviscerated their ability to operate independently, and the costs to rebuild that infrastructure will eat into much narrower profit margin to the extent where they will cease being profitable as businesses for years or even decades to come.

    What’s likely to happen as a consequence is that we’re going to see a large number of newspapers and magazines (which have seen the same process) fold in the next couple of years. Because demand for paper is still there – somewhat – I expect that there will be new publishers that pull together the released editorial pools or become much more obviously hybridized “news” organizations that see the newspaper as just a distribution channel, along with TV, radio and Internet broadcasting, but a lot of the existing brands will likely cease to exist.

  • http://www.TheVCF.com The Virtual Consulting Firm

    Great Article, Nick and Very Timely! :)

    We have been having a lot of these discussions lately regarding marketing to the Baby Boom generation vs. marketing to the Gen X generation and the related impact of various technologies, e.g. Social Media, and on traditional media!

    IOHO, if the traditional media do not embrace the new technologies, e.g. Social Media, their market is likely to continue to decline as the Baby Boom generation “dies off”.

    What do the rest of you all think about this?

    We hope this helps and Have a Great Day! :)

  • http://www.bluerivers.org Joshua Wait

    Interesting comparison. Not sure if the analogy actually works.

    The difference being that print newspapers actually are loosing money and readership to online media. I stopped subscribing to a daily newspaper years ago because of online media.

    I’m not sure what the difference is in attendance of public performance because of the introduction of the telephone, but I imagine that people spend less time learning and playing musical instruments because of the introduction of radio, recorded music, television and movies.

    A friend of mine who lived in rural Ireland was aghast when he returned decades later to find fiddle playing and dancing replaced with televisions and iPods. That’s only an anecdote and not well researched data, but still I think it illustrates that societies do change with the introduction of new technology.

    And in some cases, new technology means less time for old ones.

  • rick

    *cough* May I quote…

    The Seattle P-I is being put up for sale, and if after 60 days it has not sold, it will either be turned into a Web-only publication with a greatly reduced staff or discontinued entirely.

    “One thing is clear: at the end of the sale process, we do not see ourselves publishing in print,” said Steven Swartz, president of the Hearst Corp.’s newspaper division.

    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/395463_newspapersale10.html

    While the sky itslf might not be falling, the PI has lost money for years. The other major Seattle paper, the Times, is scrambling to find ways to pay its banker back later this year. Will we still see journalism? I hope so. But right now the market does not support large print journalistic enterprises. Smaller outfits like the excellent Talking Points Memo are doing alright, but it’s a very open question as to whether text journalism will survive outside of smaller, niche publications.

  • http://tr.im/HKM Hamish MacEwan

    The point has long been made that no technology or medium ever dies but it surely can lose a great deal of significance. I suspect buggy whips are still being made, just a lot fewer of them.

    I think too there is still an underestimation of just how significant the open Internet with its symmetric nature and vast coverage is, compared to the old monolithic record & distribute model.

    It will give unreformed incumbents in all the industries that fit that model a kick of vast proportions.

    Its one thing to predict the decrease in significance of centralised recording and distribution models, its another to ignore the empirical evidence that it is actually occurring.

  • Nick

    Hamish & Rick. I completely agree with you, Clay Shirky, Jack Shafer and the rest of the band… I’m not saying that the newspapers aren’t going anywhere, there are big changes coming, which is why I write “…it begins to morph and adapt to the changing climate, or as the current pundits aptly predict, it won’t survive.”

    I am trying to point out that since the birth of media (and other industries) we jump a little too quickly towards that assumed ‘complete’ demise. I believe print is going to go fade quicker than we all think, but as I’ve said in previous posts on O’Rielly; print is just a device, it’s just a matter of economics before it’s replaced with a digital counterpart. That doesn’t mean journalism is going anywhere, it is however in the midst of an evolution.

  • Steve Baker

    Why pay for their slanted, politically filtered version of the news? Technology has given the formerly captive audience a choice and they’ve voted with their feet. So be it.

  • http://ifelse.org michael

    While I take your point I think you forget that we already see the slide in sales, and in subscribers.

    The CSM is moving to web only with limited print runs and others are moving this direction too, or going out of business…

    Just because the people claimed the sky was falling in the past doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.

    The sad part is we’ve known this was on the cards since 1996…

  • http://www.infinitesummit.com/ Stephen S Hultquist

    Nick, your comments are right on. This has been going on forever. The various proponents and opponents always like to talk about one thing replacing another…

    …and it doesn’t happen that way.

    Instead, there is growth and change. The new capabilities added to the old, and expansion happening across the options.

    Well done pulling out the historic lesson. Now, the question is, “Will we learn from history or be doomed to repeat it?”

  • chuckl

    if you look closely at the numbers, you will see that the older readers (boomers and matures) are still reading in print, both newspapers and magazines. Younger readers (milennials and Gen xers) are not, but they are still getting their information from the same print sources, albeit through news aggregators. Newspapers still get most of their revenues from print; for the first time, online ad revenues flattened out in the second quarter last year and are declining slightly. Maybe it’s time to stop beating down only publishers and ask advertisers why they can’t be more effective selling online. Are clickthroughs really the best they can do? Behavioral targeting is more or less a joke. Publishers don’t have a content problem or a readership problem. They have a revenue problem, and advertisers must share the blame.

  • http://www.garrettmoon.net Garrett Moon

    Good piece. This type of over reaction is so typical and so unrealistic. Things change, and many of cornerstones of print will fall, but the ones that adapt and build a new model of business will stick around. A newspaper is an easy to understand device and relativity cheap to reproduce. It is efficient medium if used properly. I think newspapers will ironically become less and less about “news” and more focus on feature style stories that can capture a more focused and specialized audience. New media is better at providing people news quickly and will ultimately take over print in the hard news area. Both will always have their place. Long live print.

  • Phaedrus

    Nice post Nick. Obviously there are people who have stopped subscribing to newspapers and rely on online alternatives to get their daily fix. This drop in subscriptions is resulting in the demise of many print newspapers because they are/were founded on real economics of capital, costs and profits. The same cannot be said of online alternatives. My question is:
    Is TV going the same way? and how viable are the online news delivery entities?

    We might end up killing the newspapers in favour of *free* online alternatives, who in turn go kaput with nothing firm to stand on.

  • mc

    Yes, the phonograph didn’t completely supplant the telephone, and the telephone didn’t completely replace the newspaper. Recorded audio didn’t replace live audio, which didn’t replace recorded text and static pictures.

    “The internet” may well replace all the listed technologies, because it handles all the listed communication types, and does it better.

  • Perk

    Interesting points.

    After all, we still do have AM radio, though it is a shell of its former self.

    @Chuckl -“They have a revenue problem, and advertisers must share the blame.”

    Wow, so “the U.S. auto industry is failing, car buyers must share the blame”, is also true?

    @Steve “… slanted version of the news”.

    Isn’t all reporting slanted? The Internet simply allows you to pick the “news” that is slanted your way. Of course this view is coming from someone that reads both Huffpost and Drudge, falsely thinking that some truth lies in combining both points of view.

  • Karl

    This is certainly a valuable perspective.

    At the same time, some technologies have clearly been superseded. Anyone been to a vaudeville show or a silent film lately? How’s your Morse code? Many manual typewriters in use in your office?

  • http://www.twitter.com/ericwade Eric Wade

    The telephone and the phonograph are technologies. The New York Times is a business.

    Well-run companies can survive technology shifts. Truly well-run companies can create technology shifts.

    Ironically, “Bell” and “Edison” both lived on long after their technologies became passe because their corporations and labs continued to innovate.

  • chuckl

    @perk
    @Chuckl -“They have a revenue problem, and advertisers must share the blame.”

    Wow, so “the U.S. auto industry is failing, car buyers must share the blame”, is also true?

    automakers failed in the u.s. because they did not sell cars people wanted. Newspapers are not failing because people don’t want their news, but because they can’t maintain the margins with online advertising that they had in print. As Salon points out, online ads are worth a fraction of what print ads can bring in, and while people have grown to tolerate ads in print, there’s never a time when an online ad is anything except a nuisance — even a so-called targeted ad. If an online ad could generate even half the income of a print ad, newspapers would be very happy. Advertisers have yet to figure out how to make their ads tolerable online and content providers and readers alike are paying the price