What Might Have Been

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Ezra Klein makes the case that the decline of newspapers was and is so inevitable that there’s nothing smarter or better management could have done to prevent it:

Jarvis had no answer for this, and nor, so far as I know, does Shirky. More prescient managers might have made for better news products but not sufficient revenue models. Most of the commentary on dying newspapers has been about making their news product better. But the salable product of newspapers was not news. It was local advertising and classifieds. Classifieds are now free and online advertising is a weak revenue stream. Meanwhile, the internet gives individuals have access to more news, not less. Much is lost amidst this, particularly in terms of local coverage. Which is why, aside from journalists losing their jobs, few are actually upset over the changes roiling the industry. Which is why, as Shirky presciently said in 1993, “there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

A few points on this:

One — there’s obviously a very strong sense in which newspapers, physical bundles of newsprint with ink on them, are doomed. That issue should be separated from the question of whether or not the firms and brands traditionally associated with newspaper publishing are doomed.

Two — one shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which a lot of people in publishing took a remarkably long time to appreciate point one. A lot of people really took the view that because older readers habituated to the practice of reading physical papers continued to prefer print that somehow that meant online-only would “never” catch on.

Three — I don’t actually think that the firms and brands traditionally associated with newspaper publishing are doomed. One such firm, the News Corporation, will clearly survive the transition to digital. Probably none of the papers the News Corporation currently publishes will continue to exist as papers forever, but their brands and human capital were persist as part of the continued entity. I suspect that 1-3 other newspaper companies and/or wire services will continue to exist. And even if The New York Times were to go bankrupt and be sold-off to someone else, I’m fairly certain the brand will continue to exist.

Four — the clearest thing management could have done better was to recognize earlier what business they were in. In particular, letting the online classified market slip away was a preventable error. Everyone might be posting their free classified on NYTList.com had someone really smart come up with that idea. The pageviews involved would have been a huge additional asset to the nytimes.com website and it would have been one newspaper undercutting the competition rather than all newspapers being undercut by a guy named Craig.

Five — I have more thoughts on this but I’m supposed to go get a burrito with my colleagues.