Print newspapers - so not dead

I blanched when I started reading New York Timesman Max Frankel's farewell column in the Times magazine last month.

Had this longtime print man - distinguished correspondent, preeminent role model in American journalism as Times executive editor, and finally media columnist - succumbed to the newspapers-are-vanishing school of thought?

At first glance, it appeared so. Mused Mr. Frankel: "If you think a newspaper must always involve an imprint of inks on costly pulp that is processed from Canadian trees, trucked into urban factories and trucked out again to ever more widely dispersed readers, then its prospects are dim indeed. There is no feature of that paper product that will not soon be replicated and improved by digital technologies."

A Daily Digital, Frankel went on, can be delivered faster and cheaper than your print paper, read on a portable tablet, downloaded from your home computer and printed out on electronic sheets. Nothing magical about all this. The technology is at hand.

"There is little," wrote this hitherto respected colleague, but now seemingly treacherous defector to electronic journalism, "that a paper journal does for you that a Web journal could not do better."

All very well Max, I spluttered to myself. But have you forgotten the printed newspaper's portability?

You can read it anywhere from room to room at home, or on the bus or in the park, without lugging your tablet around. You can tear bits out of it, distribute sections to others. You can be moved by its display of photos, gripped by its graphics, in a way that your little computer screen can hardly replicate. Then you can browse through your newspaper in a much more leisurely manner than the more structured format of the Web page permits.

The genius of a well-edited and compellingly designed newspaper is that it lures you into reading informative and entertaining stories and features that you would never have told your computer you wanted to read.

Then there's credibility. What about the latest Ohio State University study that suggests writing is more believable when seen on paper rather than on a computer screen?

Moreover, if dotcom journalism is the wave of the future, how come its creators haven't yet found a way to make it pay, and some of the principal ones are cutting back?

Salon, the pioneer online magazine, is cutting its operating budget for fiscal 2001 by about 20 percent and laying off 15 percent of its editorial staff. In a special section on the future of Web journalism, the Columbia Journalism Review suggests that if profits are in short supply, journalistic standards on the Web will be under pressure. NBCi has just announced it is cutting 170 jobs, or 20 percent of its work force, as part of continuing retrenchment at the TV network's struggling online division.

And it is here, over this sordid matter of money, that we discover Frankel has not really abandoned hope for the printed paper, for it still has unique advantages that dotcom journalism has yet to acquire.

The Web offers us a remarkable, largely free, instrument for transmission of data, but it will be, as Frankel suggests, a goodly time until the Web worshipers can "quit their rhapsodizing about 'free' digital news and figure out a way to pay for its production."

The Web, he points out, has so far only supplanted the newspaper's trucks. It has not produced very good reporter robots or electronic editors. Nor has it figured out how to pay the costly humans needed to gather, interpret, write, and package information for the coming world.

Most newspapers are now prudently and defensively dabbling with the new, electronic media.

But the new media gets its content from the old media. It is the newspaper that generates the unique news content that dotcom journalism has so far been unable to economically originate. It is not yet time to stop the presses.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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