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(News)Paperless Society

by May 04, 2009
What will I light fires with?

What will I light fires with?

Being a part of an online publication like Audioholics probably doesn't give me the least biased position on the state of the newspaper and print magazine industry. Obviously, I have a lot invested in maintaining the viability of the online medium. So I can't help but feel a little bit of validation when I read that the parent company of Stereophile is filing for bankruptcy. Of course, I don't want anyone to lose their jobs or have any desire to see any of my fellow reviewers suffer but we've believed for years that the Internet is the future of news and information.

It has been reported (in the newspapers no less) that the print industry has fallen on hard times. The Denver's Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the Christian Science Monitor. and the Baltimore Examiner have closed their doors (some remain online) while the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer are in bankruptcy. Layoffs are rife and we've had personal experiences at tradeshows overhearing our print colleagues complain about how cutthroat everything has gotten. Where once writers would envy someone else's creativity, some are turning to theft by finishing a similar story and turning it in earlier than the originator. Not the most ethical of behaviors for sure but when it is steal or eat, some seem to be unable to hear their conscience over the rumble of their stomaches.

According to a threat issued by the Boston Globe, one of the inherent problems with the industry is the unions. The Globe is poised to lose $85 million in 2009 if the unions won't allow them to make cuts. In 60 days, the paper is planning on shutting down if they can't reach a financial settlement with the unions. The unions have countered saying that they had offered a plan that would make the required cuts just before the ultimatum was issued. One of the main sticking points is that the union's eliminate job guarantees that affect about 450 union employees.

Online sources do not run into nearly as many problems. Most of all, what takes many, many people to produce in print can be done with only a few (or a one) online. Plus, the Internet is a fairly new phenomenon and hasn't been infiltrated by unions. While I have nothing against unions personally, if you'd want to know the biggest complaint of exhibitors at tradeshows like CES, it is that they can't do anything themselves (including vacuuming their booth) but instead have to pay a union worker to do it or face a hefty fine. Often, a large portion of the cost of the show is in union fees. That's why a lot of the exhibitors are moving off site to the surrounding casinos.

Blogs, Twitter, and online publications like Audioholics seem to be taking the forefront for news and information. Who wants to wait until tomorrow morning (or next week for that matter) to read in a newspaper what your blackberry told you today? How about waiting six weeks or longer for a magazine to catch up with current events? Newspapers and print mags are increasingly offering their content online. They are also focusing more on "blog-like" reporting rather than traditional "talk down to" reporting. Even Warren Buffet, owner of the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal says that he'd not invest in another newspaper (though he's not selling the ones he has... yet). Says Buffet, "They were the ultimate business 30 or 40 years ago..." but that they'd, "...lost their essential nature." Not exactly glowing praise.

But newspapers and print mags have a certain "built in" audience, right? The anecdotal evidence is that your mom and dad will never look online for their news and that the newspaper will always be their staple. Apparently not. According to Cnet, the average user of the Kindle, Amazon.com's eBook, is 50 years or older (50%) with 27% being over 60. The latest version of the Kindle is wireless and can access Amazon (to buy more books), read top US and international newspapers (online editions of course), and download more than 1400 top blogs. All this for minimum monthly charges and while using a cellphone-like service which is not reliant of Wi-Fi hotspots. Since Amazon has near complete control over the form factor and pricing on the Kindle, some mags are looking for an alternative. Their big complaint? They want something that makes it easier to display advertising.

Therein lies the problem. The newspaper and print mags have a square peg and they refuse to admit that the shape of the consumer is changing. They can't keep trying to shove that square peg down our throats. Even the mags and papers that have tried to make the switch to online are making fairly elemental mistakes. They'll limit access to their content or sometimes only let you view an article for a certain period of time. It's likely that one or more of the articles I linked in this editorial will be blocked in a month or two. But this doesn't stop me from linking them. Why? Well, when those dead articles start showing up our readers will either take my word for it or scroll through the comments and see if anyone complained that I misquoted.

That's what is great (and sometimes bad) about the Internet - interactivity. If you write a letter to the editor, you've got very little chance of getting published but if you think something someone wrote online is great (or horrible), you can respond (usually) directly and may even get a response from the writer. Oh, unless it's a national online newspaper or the Associated Press - they don't like getting feedback. For the rest, what was once the purview of cranky old men with too much time on their hands is now available to everyone. People want to be able to respond and feel validated when they see an article changed because of something they've said. Many online publications will allow readers to submit articles (Audioholics does) and gives them credit. Blogs, like AV Rant, will even print reader "rants" in their entirety. New writers trying to get some traffic over to their sites will do this just for the links.

One thing to lament about the hypothetical passing of the print medium is the finality of each issue. The malleability of the Internet means that corrections can be made almost immediately. Newspapers and magazines needed to be much stricter about fact checking. Blogs are notoriously inaccurate and inflammatory - often purposefully just to drive traffic. Online mags like Audioholics strive to be more accurate and have a peer review process. Twitter might get you up-to-the-second news (sometimes right at the scene) but who knows where it is coming from and how accurate it is?

This is an exciting time as people are discovering new and faster ways to get information. The quality of that information is what is in question. It is also unclear what the public will decide on - faster, less accurate or slightly less fast but more accurate. It does seem that traditional print sources seem to be falling out of favor no matter what metric you use. Advertisers are notoriously hesitant to change tactics even when what they are doing is no longer working. Once people decide what they want, ad dollars will follow. That may mean Tweeted ads or programs that manage all your accounts (blog readers, twitter accounts, facebook, myspace, etc.) with banners. It could just take the form of embedded ads that that drive traffic (and sales) through content. The form will follow usage and right now people are voting with their browsers.


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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