Langeveld: Newspaper downturn caused by shift in American interests, not by Web

Martin Langeveld at the Nieman Journalism Lab writes that the real cause of the woes facing the newspaper industry is not the Web. Rather, it is the shifting and expanding American attention span.

Langeveld writes that the heyday of newspapers coincided with periods of the 20th century in which Americans were united in their passions and interests — the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. But the decades after have seen a boom in the number of luxuries and options available to Americans. Instead of every citizen focusing on the same issues, our range of interests has exploded.

It’s no wonder, then, that we can’t get more people to read the newspaper these days; there’s just not enough column inches to appeal to everyone.

The Web, Langeveld says, only accelerated this death spiral for the industry. It did not cause the spiral in the first place.

His advice to the news industry:

To have even a chance of survival, the mindset of the industry needs to become: We are in the business of publishing information content continuously on our web sites; every 24 hours (for now, and this may ultimately change to once or twice weekly) we gather some of that information into a printed product and distribute it, but our business is focused on and driven by our online operations.

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4 thoughts on “Langeveld: Newspaper downturn caused by shift in American interests, not by Web

  1. My two cents;

    The fundamental issue is time. When work started to reorganize in the 70's the time available to spend on scanning the newspaper disappeared. The trick is that the content of publishing in Print should be driven by focus as opposed to the calendar.

    Events create focus. Events are unpredictable. Black swan events are the most unpredictable. Black swan events create the most focus. Print – the form – has to be regular. Print – the content – should be assembled when the community it serves is focused. Manufacturing or capturing attention by words and pictures just ain't gonna do it any more. Not when there are so many other media trying to “capture attention.”

    People have evolved to have amazingly fine signal/ noise filters. It's not attention scarcity. It's just a more evolved way to filter out the incoming bullshit.

  2. Yes, events create focus. I doubt the country could have been more focused than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, but you're right. Those events are unpredictable and cannot feed the daily news monster's hunger for regular content.

    So barring daily, country-uniting disasters, newspapers have to manufacture focus, if they can; but I think this kind of artificial unity leaves much to be desired. The news can only drive so far on fake fuel — I suppose they have to hope that the fumes are enough to get them to the next gas-station disaster/event.

    As far as the signal-to-noise filters, I just worry that in an age of so much noise and such fine-tuned signals, we might be expending so much energy trying to find what we want to hear and read that we don't have any energy left to actually process the information that we do take in — and do something useful with it.

    Finally, Michael, do you have a blog or Web site? I can't find a link to one on your Disqus profile, and I have a feeling yours are thoughts I should be reading regularly.

  3. Fair enough when you say “I just worry that in an age of so much noise and such fine-tuned signals, we might be expending so much energy trying to find what we want to hear and read that we don't have any energy left to actually process the information that we do take in — and do something useful with it.”

    The good news is that scanning a Physical product does not require energy. Vision based search is in the background. Searching the web does. That's the defensible advantage of newspapers and the real reason that local advertising is easier sold in Print than on the web.

    Thank you for asking about the blog:
    http://sellingprint.blogspot.com/2009/01/newspa

  4. To some extent it may be too much saying:
    No newspaper, newspaper group or industry consortium has articulated a realistic strategy in response to this.

    I think there are plenty of examples of the contraty, maybe more tactical than strategic, true.

    In fact, maybe we focus in newspapers and among main winners in terms of online audience you see more newspapers than radio or tv stations. Of course, it is due to de fact that text needed less bandwith than audio or video.

    But, this fact, converted newspapers into a first mover in a digital multimedia reality.

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