The Future of News

People generally don’t get the chance to read their own obituaries—except, of course, when the report of a death turns out to be greatly exaggerated. In the case of the newspaper industry, however, scores of obituaries have appeared in recent years even as the subject of those valedictories retains a pulse, however faint. Those who love newspapers and those who work for them (the two categories are sometimes mutually exclusive) have had the rare opportunity to read about the life and death of print journalism even though traditional print outlets remain part of our civic culture, especially here in New York. If the obituaries are premature, it is only because nobody has had the heart to pull the plug once and for all. But that day surely is coming. The latest bad news comes in the form of bleak data and harsh assessments. The Council of Economic Advisors described the newspaper industry as the nation’s fastest-shrinking industry. The Atlantic recently noted that print newspaper ads have declined from $60 billion annually in the late 1990s to $20 billion last year. An unnamed newspaper executive told the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism that “there’s no doubt we’re going out of business now.” Few people would disagree. Although New York continues to defy national trends with three dailies, elsewhere there is no doubt about what the future holds. Indeed, the future is here: Most cities have been reduced to just one traditional newspaper, and the data suggest that in many places there soon will be none. News executives and reporters can lament what technology has done to the printing press. Or they can embrace the obvious truth that journalism can and must succeed, regardless of how the news is delivered to consumers. Print newspapers have simply been the means through which the stories of our times have been delivered. Paper doesn’t matter. But the news does and, in a free society, always will. It is simply stating the obvious to argue that traditional newspapers must find a new business model. But that obvious truth has been haunting newspapers for years now, and yet there have been only sporadic attempts to drag the industry into the 21st century. In the meantime, casualties have piled up—great old newspapers have died, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs, and readers have fled to more efficient news-gathering vehicles. Whatever the future of traditional newspapers, there can be no arguing with the proposition that the information, opinions and investigations they have delivered on a daily basis for centuries have not diminished in importance. The nation’s founders believed that a democratic republic required an informed and enlightened citizenry. While there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that the founders’ ideals have not quite been met, it is equally clear that without the work of journalists, the republic’s future would be bleak indeed. Journalism must remain a vital part of our civic culture. That will require an embrace of new technologies and a ruthless but necessary shedding of the old ways of doing business. It should have happened already. It must happen now.

The Future of News