Newspapers, And Exaggerated Reports of Their Demise

By | February 22, 2006

(A podcast version of this post is available here.)

Steve Rubel, powerblogger (does anyone blog more than Steve? No one in my feed list does) complains about how newspapers offer only partial RSS feeds: for those of you not following this, an RSS feed is a bit like a newswire, a stream of stories as they are published, arriving in the subscribers inbox (or reader software, or customised homepage, or dynamic bookmark folder. A partial RSS feed is a bit like a newswire that only gives you the first few paragraphs of a story, requiring you to go to the newspaper’s homepage (in my newswire analogy, run into the next room to find the rest of the story on the the whole, scrolling ticker tape machine).

I agree with Steve, it’s dumb. Not a smart way to go. Where I don’t agree is when he reckons that newspapers as physical folds of paper will be dead in a decade:

Flash forward 10 years from today. We will look back and laugh how quaint it was that we received our news on dead trees. Yes, I am saying the word “newspaper” will be a misnomer. News will be delivered automatically each day, not by the paper boy, but via wirelessly enabled e-paper devices that are easy to read. All of it will be powered by RSS.

Steve is being a tad provocative here, although not as provocative as he would have been had he said it a few years ago. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers as a delivery mechanism is dead. To which I’d like to be equally provocative: let’s meet again in 10 years and see whether this is true. Yes, we know the younger generation aren’t reading newspapers. Yes, we know newspapers are in financial trouble. Yes, we know that newspapers are not an elegant delivery mechanism. Yes, we know that there are better ways of getting information to us. And we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of how better to represent news information. But we also know this:

  • people love great writing, and it’s rare to find it on blogs, where by definition writing is fast and, usually and unlike this post, brief;
  • people love great reading — as in, laying back with a coffee, sitting on a train, by the pool/sea/prison wall, reading something they enjoy. No technology has replaced paper for this, nor is it likely to. Yes, there are cool tools for e-paper, and these will have their uses, but they won’t replace paper.
  • people love good editors. Editors are not there just to put all the stories together. They’re there to decide what may make interesting reading, from commissioning articles to laying them out on the page and deciding a headline. When we buy a newspaper we’re paying in part for the editor’s choice of stories on the page. We’re effectively saying to the editor: You have a better idea of what is out there, and I trust you. Tell me. Inform me. Entertain me. (Today’s front page of one of my regular newspapers today had three great stories I would never have found had I just confined myself to my regular newsfeed: on reclassification of U.S. documents, on a failing Hong Kong plan for a cultural centre; on East Timor trying to avoid the pitfalls of an oil bonanza.)
  • people love to get their newspaper wet/dirty/crumpled/folded/annotated/left behind/eaten by the dog. A newspaper is a very flexible device, and it’s cheap enough so I don’t mind that I drop it in the bath. I’m not sure the Sony ePaper device is going to be as easy to dry off.

You can also hit people with it

Newspapers are in crisis. And they should be smarter about RSS, and understand their value is not in hot news, but in a perspective, a gathering of features, commentary and semi-hard news stories. We can laugh at their slowness — especially in covering things online, which for them is a bit like an adult trying to figure out what the hell is going on in the minds of their teenage offspring. But we should be really careful about writing off them, or their tried and trusted delivery mechanism, any time soon. See you in 10 years Steve, and let’s see who’s right.

7 thoughts on “Newspapers, And Exaggerated Reports of Their Demise

  1. pieman

    I agree with all your points apart from the last one – “people love to get their newspaper” – 20 and 30somethings, myself included – yes – but younger folk? Aren’t they too busy with this internet thing? Epaper is exciting technologically, but (I imagine) more of a soulless experience of news than a newspaper. The only that worries me about Steve’s prediction is what it means for the fish and chip shop trade. The British national dish without newspaper? Over my deadwood.

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  3. nightingaleshiraz

    I always enjoy your thoughts on this topic. But (as you probably already know), you *did* say something very different about the e-paper vs. newspaper debate not so long ago (from The Future of Paper –
    “Newspapers, getting smaller as our lives get more crowded, are an obvious target for a digital makeover, since we rarely keep them and yet every day fill the same space in our briefcase with an identical replacement.”

    …Am not saying you were wrong then (or that you are now) — really that’s not the point. The points (and I think you get them across well) are that it’s *not* a sure thing that newspapers will be gone in 10 years, as Steve says. And, that either way, what’s key is that the ways in which we absorb and communicate information *are* changing…


  4. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Nightingale, thanks for this. Good point, I was being a tad inconsistent there. And you hit the nail on the head. The way we absorb and communicate information is changing. And as my wife points out, the fact that the younger generation don’t read newspapers now, doesn’t mean they will never read newspapers.

  5. nightingaleshiraz

    Reviving this discussion for a moment (although am sure you’ve already seen the news on this), is today’s NYT piece ( — “Are Papers About to Land or Take Off?”

    Apart from the obvious speculation and suspense about whether anyone is actually going to buy Knight Ridder out (and therefore make the implicit statement that it’s worth buying), is the larger suspense about “What This Means For The Newspaper Industry”.

    I think the Naughton quotes:

    “My concern is that it will be considered a referendum on the news business rather than an acknowledgment of what it really is — the failure of Knight Ridder many years ago to protect itself in the way it organized its stock,”


    “I don’t know that it speaks to the wider issue of whether there is money to be made in newspapers because the answer is yes, a lot,”

    …are dead on.

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