Saturday, March 28, 2009


Did Brenda Starr get fired Saturday? As inconceivable as it may seem, the hip, sexy comic strip reporter who first entered the American consciousness in 1940 was canned this weekend by her tough, old bird editor, Bottomline. Never mind that in human years Starr would probably be way beyond retirement age by now. And let’s not get picky about Bottomline chomping on a cigar, even though there’s not a newsroom in America today that permits smoking. Right here we get to see the exact moment when the comics intersected in the most distressing way with real life:

Is it sheer coincidence that Starr got the ax the same week the Christian Science Monitor published its last print edition? This was also the week that the New York Times revealed it will roll all salaries back by five percent. It gets worse: The Washington Post offered employees a second buyout package this week – more than 100 staffers took the bait last year and voluntarily left before they got the Brenda Starr treatment. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution cut its news staff by 30 percent, just as the Houston Chronicle announced a 12% reduction in its own staff. Just weeks ago the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition after 149 years in print, followed closely by the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, after 146 years. The Tucson Citizen is reportedly being published on a day-to-day basis until it can be determined if it is financially possible to continue publication. The San Francisco Chronicle is hanging on by a fiscal thread, while … well, you get the dismal picture by now, right? The newspaper business is at the least, in transition, and at the extreme, obsolescent.

I attended one of the best journalism schools in the country, the University of Missouri School of Journalism. That was more than 30 years ago, when we used newsprint in manual typewriters to produce our stories in triplicate, using carbon paper. Yes, carbon paper. At the copydesk we edited stories by hand, some that ran upwards of 1500 words. Fast forward to 2009, when I do not often even read a newspaper, because I get my news online. When I produce a story for a print publication these days, the max word count is usually about 700 words. No more typewriters, carbon paper or newsprint, and some would say that within a couple of years there will be no more newspapers. I do not agree with that prediction, but I feel certain that the age of newspapers as a primary source of news and information is now over.

Industry observers will point squarely to the rise of new technology as the reason for the demise of newspapers. I think otherwise – I believe newspaper professionals were so determined to preserve their product in its traditional form that they quietly overlooked the digital age. When they finally did concede to the existence of the online world, instead of innovating and creating something dynamic and compelling, many of them simply took the traditional product and duplicated it online. Instead of researching the market, conducting focus groups and studying new media possibilities, they kept churning out the same product that worked during the Civil War, hoping the public would eventually come back into the fold—or above the fold, as it were. It was a classic case of burying their stubborn, corporate heads in the sand. It was commercial suicide. It still is.

So, here's the result: Since 2,000, daily newspaper circulation has dropped from 55 million to 50 million. Just in the past two years, ad revenue has dropped 28%, more than $11 billion. Classified ads are suffering bigtime, largely due to online resources like Craigslist. Every day, more people are migrating online for their news, partly because it's free. No one has yet figured out how to properly monetize online news. Don't get too comfortable with that. In the very near future you will likely begin to pay nominal subscription fees for online publications, and possibly a fee per story for aggregate news (e.g., Huffington Post) site postings.

Why were other American industries, such as retailing, banking and travel, so much further ahead of the digital curve than newspapers? Once the newspaper industry recognized the mass communicative power of the Internet, why did it not aggressively mount new business models to take advantage of it? And above all, why did an unwavering commitment to traditionalism trump the obvious coming of digital innovation? Digital communication did not creep up on us overnight. Watch this 1981 report about the San Francisco Examiner’s experimental computer version of its newspaper:

I seem to be one of the few journalists of my generation who are truly embracing the evolution of online news and information. I don’t get it. Wouldn’t you think that an industry that is dedicated to conveying information would fully support any vehicle that would allow them to update this information constantly, around the clock? Further, the people who work in the newspaper industry do so because they believe in contributing to the mix of ideas. So, why are so many of them rallying against bloggers and citizen journalists? Wouldn’t you expect them to respect the technological opportunity for men and women on the street to have a voice in world events?

The evolution I have been fortunate enough to witness, from manual typewriters to digital communication is stunning. It has altered the culture in ways almost as monumental as advances in medical science, space exploration and the election of a black man as President of the United States. Note to all the middle-aged white guys who still call the shots in the news business: Get on board with it, or perish. We are in the midst of the most fascinating moment our business has seen – ever. You can fight it, and ultimately drop out of it, or you can dive in and have the adventure of your lifetime. It’s your call.

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