The future of the New York Times is uncertain. The paper is carrying a lot of debt and not much cash to pay it off. May 2009 looms like a singularity for the Times – it’s impossible to predict with any certainty what will happen if and when the Times defaults on its debt.
Among the possible solutions to the Times’ problems are layoffs, closures, miracle buyouts, counterfeiting, genies in bottles and magic. But of all the possible solutions, the hardest one to believe is that the New York Times might just shut down its presses and go all digital.
That’s just what Michael Hirschorn, contributing editor at The Atlantic, writes about in his article in the January-February issue of the magazine.
Hirschorn notes that the Times’ financial problems come at probably the worst possible time in the news industry. Advertising revenues are down, readership is migrating to the Web and publishers are having a hard time figuring out how to get people to pay for news. Worse yet, this exodus from print seems to be happening much faster than most in the industry expected. Hirschorn writes:
Regardless of what happens over the next few months, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist.
The collapse of the Times’ print edition is no the end of the world, nor will it mark the end of print journalism. But it will serve as a major symbol. The New York Times is possibly the most respected and most famous newspaper in the world. Its success and quality of reporting have always been the model for what a good newspaper should be, and it’s got the Putlitzers to prove its quality. So when the Times’ presses go quiet, it will be a major mental blow to the entire newspaper industry, a sign of the end times.
Daily print journalism is a part of many people’s lives. Losing it, Hirschorn writes, will be blow to people who have focused their daily cultural rituals around newsprint, the “smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind.”
But the loss of daily print journalism will have wider effects too, he writes.
[I]t will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy. Internet purists may maintain that the Web will throw up a new pro-am class of citizen journalists to fill the void, but for now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict.
Yet few people are complaining, Hirschorn notes. Why should they complain when they can get all of the news that’s fit to print for free in digital-print? On top of that, the public has been trained by the Web to “undervalue journalists and journalism” and be lazy consumers of news. The same stories bounce around between different sites, their individual voices stripped away by a combination of AP Style and aggregation. The brands, the names at the top of the papers or the Web sites, don’t matter much any more. “The story from Beijing that pops up in my Google alert could have come from anywhere,” Hirschorn writes.
In an effort to draw people back to journalism, papers like the Times have tried to fill their pages with fluff, and while that may draw readers back, “it has gradually hollowed out journalism’s brand, by making the newspaper feel disposable,” Hirschorn notes.
Hirschorn is optimistic that an online future for the Times and other papers will not be the end of the news world and the end of democracy. In the short-term, it will be bad. Many journalists will lose their jobs; online advertising revenues won’t be able to afford their salaries. And for a time, many papers without deep source files and long experience will struggle to make themselves relevant.
But over the long-term, Hirschorn believes that those displaced journalists, the ones with the will to stick with journalism, will find outlets for their work. News “papers” will band together to share stories, assignments, resources and links and advertising, and for the foreseeable future, online journalism will follow the model put forth by the Huffington Post. In that model, a small staff is focused on the important issues, while the rest of the news is aggregated from other sources.
Hirschorn closes on a positive note:
[O]ver the long run, a world in which journalism is no longer weighed down by the need to fold an omnibus news product into a larger lifestyle-tastic package might turn out to be one in which actual reportage could make the case for why it matters, and why it might even be worth paying for. The best journalists will survive, and eventually thrive.
One thing that Hirschorn doesn’t really explain in his article is how the money side of journalism will have to change to even make this model work, and he doesn’t have to. Everyone knows the answer already, the harsh, utilitarian answer that puts 80 percent of the industry out of work.
A lot of the industry news right now is focused on how to save journalism, but it’s pretty clear that no matter what the value of dead-tree dissemination was in the past, that form of communication is not going to be the future – not as things look now. The Web is the future, and the Web doesn’t work the same way as print publishing.
But it’s hard to acknowledge that an industry with so much tradition and so much history could lose that avenue of communication. It’s even harder to acknowledge that that industry will have to lose such a large chunk of its employees in order to evolve, and that’s why so many electrons and so much ink is spilled about how to “save” print journalism. No one wants to see their colleagues or themselves lose their jobs.
The future of working in the news industry is bleak, but the future of journalism itself is not. Journalism will continue, if only because it must fill the void of freedom created by the First Amendment. So long as Americans are free to write what they want, there will be journalists to keep an eye on the government, whether they are paid or not.
For a while, at least, there will just be fewer of them, which means that you, the survivors out there, will have to be ever more vigilant for the rest of us.