New technologies, when sufficiently developed, are often more effective than old ones in nearly every way. Examples abound: guns replacing bows, the car replacing the buggy, the transistor replacing the vacuum tube, e-mail replacing snail mail. Old technologies often stick around only in “prestige” form, like swords for military ceremonies or paper invitations for weddings. Using such archaic technology for day-to-day business, on the other hand, is generally considered laughable.
Many observers, both liberal and conservative, view newspapers and other print publications as such an archaic medium. This futurist notion claims that print media provides no value and will soon be superseded. Although many newspapers have failed or are in trouble, such views are a gross extrapolation of current trends, and it would be a shame if the newspaper industry surrendered the field without a fight.
Attention span may be the most primitive advantage held by the print format. Many people find it hard to finish a 2,000-word article in the online edition of a newspaper, whereas the same text in ink on paper is a breeze to read. A newspaper is easier on the eyes and harder to get distracted from than a Web site.
In a more substantive vein, most online-only news organizations lack a serious reporting function. News aggregators, blogs and other sites all deliver something of value, but it isn’t hard, objective news content. These sites are often good for bringing up whatever gets left out by the print media, but they are both unwilling and unable to produce enough, if any, factual stories filed by staff on location to replace real news outlets.
For all the buzz they generate, Web sites like Facebook and Twitter are even worse as news mediums; they take the regurgitating aspect of blogs and take it to a miniaturized extreme. The summer riots in Iran proved that these sites can be extremely useful in countries where freedom of speech is not respected. But it should be obvious that such mediums are flawed as a substitute for hard reporting due to their inherently fragmented nature.
Cable and network television, meanwhile, solves some of the aforementioned problems and offers unmatched visual input, but it still suffers from an over reliance on sound bites and advocacy journalism. The dialogues made possible by live television often degenerate into shouting matches, making them inferior to a reasonably balanced op-ed page in a newspaper.
To be sure, some mainstream reporters are just as ideologically driven as their online counterparts while still believing in the myth of their own objectivity. But in general, newspapers (both conservative- and liberal-leaning) are significantly more responsible than their new-media and television counterparts. Your perception may be somewhat skewed if you read The Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune, but it will be incredibly skewed if you get your news from Olbermann, Hannity, the Drudge Report or the Daily Kos.
The problem with these papers isn’t that they aren’t worth reading, but that they have failed to turn their valuable content into a viable business model. The free-content, advertising-based system that has dominated the newspaper industry has proven difficult to sustain as consumers become increasingly contemptuous of advertising in its more obvious forms.
Finding a new way to capitalize on traditional advantages is a challenge worth confronting for newspapers, both for the good of the industry and for the public interest.
Reach columnist Russ Wung at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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