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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Hail to the Chief

So despite the sad, tattered, tortured state of my March Madness bracket, I’ve decided to keep making predictions until someone stops me. Here I go: in 10 years there will not be a major metropolitan newspaper in the U.S.

I’ve got four main reasons guiding my thinking here.

Someone will always put things online for free. This actually came up in an argument my friends and I had over spring break. I contended that if all newspapers in the early to mid 90s had required people to pay to view their stuff online, it would be accepted by the general public that you had to pay for newspaper content in all mediums.

My friends argued that someone, somewhere, is always going to be willing to do for free what other people want to be paid for. I argued against this at the time, but in retrospect this point is completely accurate. The reporting would not be as good, given that whoever it was would be doing it for free on their own time. But it would gradually improve, just as we’ve seen blogs gradually improve to valid news outlets. So while paid subscriptions would have bought them a few years, you can’t really contend with free.

The fact that you can get news online for free has led to the biggest problems newspapers are having right now. People buy fewer newspapers, advertisers take note and buy less ad space, newspapers make less money. When you’re not making as much money, you can’t pay people what you did previously. Hence, layoffs. Which brings me to my next point.

With all the cost-cutting that has gone on at newspapers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to have better reporting. Soon it will be nigh impossible. One journalistic advantage that newspapers have traditionally had over Internet news sources has been the quality reporting. Newspapers used to have the money to pay their best writers to work for weeks at a time on a single story. Several newspapers could afford to have foreign bureaus to improve their international reporting. These resources are impossible for a blog to contend with.

Unfortunately, due to the failure of newspapers to succeed in other areas (like figuring out the Internet), they’ve had to cut costs at an alarming rate. Investigative stories that require weeks of time and only run for one day in the paper are now luxuries that few can afford. So the idea that newspapers can consistently have more thorough, better-reported stories than any website is becoming less accurate by the day.

When the stories are of the same quality, where would you prefer to go to get your news: a newspaper, which costs money (a whole 50 cents, but still), or a website which is free and has a cornucopia of other features?

Newspapers are a less interactive medium. What’s the most interaction you have with a newspaper? A letter to the editor? Maybe you do the crossword. Well those are neat, but you can do the same thing on the Internet and also do a whole host of other things. The Sacramento Bee has a searchable database where you can look up the salary of any state employee (this includes UC Davis professors). ESPN.com has an NBA trade simulator that lets any visitor pretend they’re an NBA general manager. Given a choice between fewer features or more features, which are you going to choose?

Daily newspapers are too slow. Television didn’t do newspapers any favors, and the Internet completely overwhelmed them. For over 300 years, newspapers have been a reliable, swift source of information. They’re still reliable, but it’s hard to be faster than instantaneous. The speed with which news can be disseminated and subsequently consumed on the Internet, combined with the low cost (free!) has left the newspaper business model in the dust.

I’d love to be wrong. I hope one of you comes up to me in 10 years and saysHa! You totally whiffed on that newspaper prediction.And then I’ll ask you to stop gloating and put your spare change in my tin cup.

Certainly, I don’t think that print journalism is dying. Monthly magazines (and to a lesser extent weeklies) still deliver something that there is a great deal of demand for; they can afford to do long, well-reported features stories that are not so time sensitive. The New York Times Sunday edition will probably live on; the aspects of that edition that everyone loves are weekly supplements anyway.

College newspapers will also still exist; they fill a niche for their respective universities that nobody else does. Whether they’ll be daily or weekly will depend on their market and the state of the economy.

But don’t expect to see a major metro daily in 2019.

 

RICHARD PROCTER was just getting into the spring break thing when he had to come back to work. Share your disappointment at rhprocter@ucdavis.edu.

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