Monday, April 03, 2006
LIFE WITHOUT NEWSPAPERS: A weekly publisher goes cold turkey
In Chicago, the publisher of The New City, an alternative weekly, himself
a lifelong reader of multiple mainstream daily newspapers, tried going
without a paper for a month and decided to kick the habit -- relying
online news sources only. Read Brian Hieggelke's account, especially his
trenchant observations about what the change means for large newspaper
Life without Newspapers
Are dailies dead?
Web readers of Newcity might notice that some of this story was first
published at Newcity.com.
I am a lifelong newspaper junkie. Growing up, my dad always read the
newspaper, and when his dad was around, he read the newspaper. I
understood implicitly that grownup men read newspapers.
After school, I went to work for Goldman Sachs, where it was drilled into
the trainees that keeping up with news was a fundamental component of
success. I indulged, almost excessively. In my twenties, I subscribed to
the daily editions of the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, the New
York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And, because I "covered"
Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa for my sales job, I subscribed to both
Milwaukee dailies, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Des Moines
Register. I think I personally took down a tree a day.
When I left Goldman, I symbolically quit my WSJ subscription, but picked
it up again a few years later. Over time, my addiction to newspapers
became as much a burden as a pleasure. Stacks would pile up, and time
would disappear as I plowed dutifully through every edition. Finally, when
the Sun-Times couldn't deliver consistently to my Loop apartment, I
dropped it. I dropped the New York Times to save time. With the advent of
the Internet, and the incursion of email, I started losing even more time.
Eventually I dropped the Journal, leaving only the Tribune. Ironically,
the Trib is my least favorite of the four, and for years I subscribed to
it over the Sun-Times only because its delivery service was virtually
flawless and, frankly, because it had the good comics.
Newspaper reading is a ritual for me. I wake up, make coffee, get the
paper and hit my chair. In earlier years, I'd get agitated if someone
messed with my papers, out of fear that I might miss a section, and my
long-discarded bad behavior lives on in reputation with my family. Now, I
read the Tribune in a repetitive manner on most days--first Sports, of
which I read little but scan for scores and major news, then Business,
Chicagoland, Tempo and the main section. I discard Classifieds, Automotive
and Real Estate, along with ad circulars, without even opening them. I am
personally embarrassed that the new Personals page of celebrity gossip--in
the main news section--is one of the sections of the Tribune I read
faithfully, but guilty pleasure it remains.
Newspapers are like throwbacks to another time, with "family-friendly"
profanity-free copy, aw-shucks columns and Blondie cartoons. Reading the
newspaper is like limiting your television watching to a steady stream of
"Leave it to Beaver" reruns. I am sure that for some segments of the
population, perhaps for that mysterious "Red State America" out there,
this is a good thing. But for me, the pleasure of reading comes from
magazines and books.
I've been an early adopter of the Internet, and read dozens if not
hundreds of stories a month online. But I've done so in conjunction with
my daily newspaper habit. Over the last year, I've grown more pessimistic
about the future of the print newspaper, a notion supported by the growing
consensus of countless pundits contemplating the crashing earnings and
circulation figures flowing out of the once-mighty emperors of ink. For
me, the proliferation of the wireless Internet has been the lynchpin, as
I've become addicted to perpetual connectivity and have seen my lifestyle
changing to reflect it. And I'm from the newspaper generation; those
behind me lack any allegiance to print.
I decided to go cold turkey for a month and give up print newspaper
subscriptions altogether--to try and get my daily news fix from the web,
and see what happened.
Although I look forward to a more varied news diet, and fully expect to
dramatically vary my menu as time progresses, I decide to start with the
familiar and head to Chicagotribune.com. After reading one of the top news
stories about Dick Cheney's wayward shotgun, I click on what looks like
big news on Lollapalooza and get exiled to a login/registration page. I've
already registered but, of course, can't remember which password I used,
so I have to get it emailed, then login, then back to the home page to get
to the story again. Not an auspicious beginning.
I skim and scroll a lot, replacing the similar process of skimming and
scanning that I use with my newspaper. Many stories are just headlines,
and in most cases, I don't want to invest the time to click and see if
they are interesting. This is especially true of columnists, since I don't
have any particular favorites at the Tribune. In print, I'd scan all the
stories and perhaps read something I would not have expected to, based on
the headline and the lead paragraph.
Overall, I'm somewhat disoriented, despite the familiarity. I don't really
look at sports, and don't know where the celeb gossip that I read in print
One thing I observe today is that while the news is theoretically as fresh
as it can be, "fresh" news seems to be mixed in with older stories,
especially on the section pages. I see headlines to stories I read in
print Monday, or even Sunday. With print, you might not have the latest
news, but you have a built-in sense for how fresh it is, and make mental
adjustments. With the web, you rely on posting times, which you usually
have to click on a story to see, or you live with confusion. For example,
Tom Skilling's weather forecast today projects a high of 42 and a low of
32, but when you scroll down the page, the seven-day forecast shows a high
for today of 52 and a low of 37. Which is the most current forecast? Is
one just a keypunch error?
Another observation: with print, you have a somewhat defined beginning and
end, which helps contain the time you spend with the news. With the web,
there is no such finiteness, allowing you to spend as much or as little
time as you want. I fear that this will end up costing me more, not less.
Suntimes.com immediately seems like a better-organized site--like a print
tabloid, it's more linear in its organization, allowing for more
methodical scanning of stories. It offers email editions, of which I sign
up for several. And quick access to columnists where, unlike the Tribune,
I do have favorites.
It's almost two weeks since I kicked the print newspaper habit and,
truthfully, I'm not feeling any pain, or any more optimistic for the
future of the daily newspaper. I still spend as much or more time reading
news in the morning, but my consumption has changed fundamentally. I do
feel a tad disoriented, like a brand-new vegetarian might feel after a
lifetime of carnivorous behavior.
I've already settled into a routine. I start every morning with the New
York Times, thanks to their email service. They're in my box long before I
get started around 6:30am; the Sun-Times email usually arrives after I've
finished. So I now take all of my national and international news from the
NY Times, as well as most of my cultural coverage. After perusing
Doonesbury, Dilbert and Boondocks online, I turn to the Sun-Times for
local news and columns. I like the linear organization of the Sun-Times
site; it makes for simple and (seemingly) complete navigation. Columnists
are listed next to the main news well by name, but only listed if they
have a fresh column that day. I read Feder, DeRogatis, Lazare and Zwecker
whenever they're posting. From there I head to the Tribune and see what
local news they've covered that the Sun-Times didn't have; usually not
much. I check the weather on the Tribune, which is sometimes all I read on
the site. Organized a bit like its broadsheet big brother, the Trib's site
doesn't offer especially friendly navigation. Things I would always read
in print--Blair Kamin, local arts and entertainment coverage, takes some
effort to find.
I'm a headline reader now. Head and subhead are often enough to get the
gist of the story. With print I would likely have scanned the first
paragraph at the very least, and often got sucked into the whole story.
Now that manual (click) commitment and the time it takes to load the page
puts the burden on the headline package to really convince me. I usually
just move on. The importance of the headline and teaser are paramount to
web news, yet so many stories are given ambiguous one-line treatment that
offers the reader no real information. And the craft of writing these
little morsels is essential: I get the Salon newsletter every morning with
the New York Times, but, as lively as the writing is in the publication, I
find little to click through to from the newsletter.
So what's missing? I sometimes feel a lack of completion; that, in spite
of the time I'm spending, there is important news I would have read before
that I do not read now. And I often take note, as I walk by the newspaper
box on the way to the train, of the modulation in type size of the very
headline I've earlier read online. When the headline is especially big and
bold, the story takes on more importance. That's a role editors play,
using modulation to help readers prioritize the reams of information we're
getting. And one they're not playing the same way on the web.
Today my month-long "vacation stop" ends, and there is my newspaper, like
clockwork, outside my door. I find it easy to return to my routine, with
my chair, my paper, my coffee. But something has changed. I've grown
accustomed to a new manner of digesting news, and especially fond of
keeping up with the Sun-Times. And I'm reading the New York Times again,
and realizing how much I missed it.
At the suggestion of a Tribune editor a couple of weeks back, I signed up
for their email newsletter, Daywatch. It's a fine product, with its own
byline for the veteran Charlie Meyerson, but it has two drawbacks: 1) you
have to be a paid Tribune subscriber to get it and 2) it comes out midday
rather than early morning.
In fact, it's possibly too late for the Tribune with me. Habits have
already been formed online. I still have my chair and my coffee, but now
it's the laptop. And, of course, all the news sources in the world, a mere
click away. The web is a news junkie's heaven--and hell.
And my print subscription? I cancel it, effective at the end of the month.
When I call, the friendly customer-service rep warns me that I'll lose the
perk of my email subscriptions. I can't help but think that it will
actually be their loss.
So are daily newspapers dead? Of course not. But their world is being
rocked, and will continue to be rocked, for at least the next decade,
after which they won't look much like my father's newspaper.
A few years back, I spent many hours on the Internet conference circuit,
spending time with the "pure" new media types and the online newspaper
folks alike. The newspaper guys were addicted to the mantra that
newspapers weren't going anywhere until you could take your computer to
the bathroom with you. It was disheartening on two levels; one, that it
seemed to place so much value emphasis on the physical character of the
medium, and it did not take a crystal ball to visualize a portable
computing future, which was well underway; and two, that it connected its
value to bathroom diversion. Fortunately, and unfortunately, you do not
hear this argument anymore.
In fact, it is the newspaper, especially in the broadsheet format like the
Tribune, that now suffers from an unwieldy format. So much so that the
"quality" newspapers in London have made the revolutionary migration to
tabloid, a development many foresee in the United States as well.
Earlier this year, a large shareholder knocked the last vestige of
complacency out of the newspaper world when it almost nonchalantly called
for a sale of Knight-Ridder, one of the nation's biggest and most
respected newspaper companies, and Knight-Ridder complied without much of
a fight. The much smaller McClatchy Company emerged victorious, but the
whole affair left the industry feeling shakier than ever. In an unusual
move, McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt felt compelled to pen an editorial in the
Wall Street Journal that walked the conceptual tightrope of arguing that
the future of newspapers was bright, but at that same time he was getting
a steal in his purchase of Knight-Ridder. Much of his argument was
obvious, self-serving and, in some cases, dubious: comparing the audience
of the Super Bowl broadcast on a single television network to the Sunday
circulation of the entire newspaper industry, for example. But he raised
an interesting point about a larger role played by newspapers in our
Self-government depends on continuous civic conversation, which in turn
depends on people having a common vocabulary. Without a shared sense of
what the problems are, there's little hope of finding solutions. That
shared middle--a place where people basically agree about the facts and
the issues, even if they differ over what to do about them--is where we
believe our responsibilities as newspaper owners lie.
Pruitt's point is that the value of the mass media is (or more likely was)
simply its mass. I don't know whether he's right, anymore than I know
whether my life in whole is much better since the Internet changed
everything. I just know that it changed everything.
A few notions about the future of newspapers online, some large and some
very small, from a newspaper junkie gone cold turkey:
Some newspapers will still be printed for a very long time. Newspapers
that survive in print will be the nationals--the New York Times and USA
Today--and the specialties: Wall Street Journal for finance, Washington
Post for politics, the LA Times for Hollywood. Sounds like Britain, with
all its national dailies, doesn't it? In addition to broadsheets
converting to tabloid format, national tabs might emerge at the "lower
Newspapers will survive, and thrive, on the web, but in different ways and
at different scales. Like the shrinking department stores who saw market
share dwindle once they joined the specialty stores at the mall, so too
will specialty web sites carve away key revenue segments (like Craigslist
is doing with classifieds). Daily newspapers today are very big companies,
and like big ships, they don't change course very rapidly. Those
classified ads that Craig Newmark and Co. have taken away might make more
sense on the Internet and the advertisers certainly appreciate getting
them for free, but their revenue used to pay a lot of journalist salaries.
The revenue underpinnings of print newspapers are complex structures that
have evolved over decades, yet are eroding over months. Consequently,
newspaper companies are likely to become either much smaller and more
specialized or much more diversified at the corporate level if they are to
Like the TV networks these past two decades who saw once-astonishing
market penetration dwindle but revenues soar, the newspapers'
proportionate scale in a rapidly fracturing media world will still offer
advertising efficiencies to larger entities seeking a "mass" if less
demographically attractive audience.
Formatting traditions will continue to evolve as the world gets "flatter."
Unlike newspapers today, which deliver content in a three-dimensional
space--the height and width of the page multiplied by the number of
pages--the Internet works best in two dimensions. That is, in spite of
near-infinite depth, we enter a story through a headline either emailed,
sitting on a home page or turning up in a search engine. Headline writing,
especially, will evolve as an art form into a mix of wordplay and punchy
As newspapers shrink, they might get personality back. Before World War
II, newspapers were the domain of larger-than-life press barons like
William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and Chicago's own Colonel
McCormick. Many were relentless and even unscrupulous in their pursuit of
stories, of circulation and of profits, and they unabashedly had
personalities that matched their owners. As the organizations grew and
founders passed on ownership to often-disconnected heirs or public
shareholders, the professional journalist came of age. Many of the changes
that era brought were for the greater good, and journalism reached its
zenith when it helped bring down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.
But the cautious commitment to "family values" in the newspaper, matched
with an unrealistic ideal of objectivity, turned the professional
newspaper into a rather bland, soulless thing. Magazines, whether glossies
or alternative weeklies on newsprint like Newcity and the Reader, stepped
into that void, establishing more intimate, more committed relationships
with their audiences. Online, newspapers will give up the advantages
gained in the postwar era; advantages of scale and subscriber inertia.
Online, brand loyalty is a frictionless click away.
The article above is copyrighted material, the use of which may not have specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of political, economic, democracy, First Amendment, technology, journalism, community and justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' as provided by Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Chapter 1, Section 107, the material above is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this blog for purposes beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.