The demise of print newspapers and magazines is sad and tragic. Because for all the inefficiency required to hire reporters and editors, offer and maintain subscriptions, assemble and print in bulk, and ship booklets of paper all over the world, those publications have remained the central organ for collecting and distributing valuable information.
Webby people like to rake print people over the coals for all sorts of pet peeves — they’re too provincial or general, they’re too liberal or conservative, they’re too high-minded or stupid — but the fact remains that 99% of the great journalism that’s been done in the past 100 years was done in print first. Even those powerful stories you see bouncing down the TV hallway every night are typically pegged to the work of an enterprising print reporter or two.
There is, of course, great consternation over what to do about the demise of dead tree journalism. Some propose saving themselves by forcing people to pay for online access via subscription. This will not work, of course, because any time you erect a wall between your people and your content, your people are bound to become someone else’s people. (Side note — this does not apply to specialty content, like that which Father Scott and I charge oodles for).
Others say advertising will save the day as millions of news consumers turn their eyes to the Web. But the limitless expanse of the Internet drives down the price of conventional advertising, making it incredibly difficult to make ends meet on ads alone.
One idea that recently received some traction in media circles, after it was floated by former Time editor Walter Isaacson, is the possibility of charging small amounts for each article online, say 99 cents. These “micropayments” would eventually add up to big dollars for news outlets. But of course this is stupid, because unlike music purchased from the iTunes store, nobody reads a news article twice.
One guy who understands that is Jim Kelly, Isaacson’s successor at Time. Unfortunately for Kelly, where he is half right, he is also all wrong:
“Micro payments would not work for me,” he said over bites of oatmeal and gulps of orange juice. “As some people have pointed out, it works for iTunes because it’s something you can listen to it over and over again, and, as good Tom Friedman is, I wouldn’t want to read the same column over and over again.”
Stop. Hammer time.
It occurs to me that a central culprit for the collapse of the print media is precisely its devotion to worn out ideas. And no idea is more threadbare than that of Tom Friedman being anything less than a self-aggrandizing, inner-circle hack who began mailing in his “columns” while most Internet news consumers were still in junior high.
Every time he peddles perfectly bland tripe as a lightning bolt of inspiration, an angel falls on a log. Every time he invents a new word or phrase in hopes of peddling a future book, your grandmother explodes. Every time he writes that “the next [insert number between 2 and 6] months are critical to our success in [insert Iraq or Afghanistan here]”, an orphan is sucked down a well.
Every time he interviews a cab driver to get an “everyday man’s” opinion, a kitten dies of AIDS.
It’s not that Friedman himself is ruining print journalism — that problem lies more with the economics of distribution and the rise of Craigslist. But if the owners of print journalism are so hopelessly devoted to a pedestrian hack who hasn’t voiced an original thought in 20 years, who in hell thinks they’ll be able to figure out how to save an entire industry?