Some Thoughts on the Future of Newspapers

I’ve just finished watching The Wire for the second time. For those unfamiliar with the TV series, the fifth and final season features two concurrent plot threads: one has to do with the police and their investigations, and the other has to do with the press, notably the Baltimore Sun, the daily newspaper in the city where the series is set.

Throughout the season, you see the difficulties that the Sun faces; even though this was made several years ago, and the Internet is not mentioned, it is clear that times are tough for that venerable daily paper. The Sun has a storied history, counting one of America’s most famous journalists, H. L. Mencken, as one of its alumni. But in season 5 of The Wire, you see the problems faced by today’s newspapers, and how they cope.

This made me think about how newspapers have changed in my lifetime, and how they may change in the near future. At first, I found the newspaper to be a sacred object. In 6th grade – and this goes back about 40 years – I recall our English teacher showing us how to fold the New York Times to be able to read it efficiently. As with any broadsheet, the right fold is essential to be able to read the paper in the subway or on a bus.

Over the years, as an adult, I bought papers most days, and skimmed the news. At a time when I watched little television, the newspaper was my only source of information about what was going on in the world. When I moved to France 25 years ago, I started buying the International Herald Tribune, and over the years, subscribed to it from time to time. This slim broadsheet, now owned by the New York Times, was a condensed version of the world’s news, and it showed up in my mailbox six days a week. Unfortunately, French newspapers are quite expensive, which has always prevented me from buying them regularly, but with the Internet, and my RSS reader, I keep up with what goes on in the world, much more than when I was reading a paper.

But now that’s all about to change. With Apple most likely releasing a tablet computer, I’m looking forward to a shift in the way we get news. Instead of reading unrelated articles with an RSS reader, we will be able to buy “newspapers” digitally, and read them on the Apple tablet. What seems likely is that we’ll be able to subscribe to a paper – local or national – and get it daily, via iTunes, on the device. This will renew people’s interest in newspapers.

Some people think this won’t work. They think that no one will pay for news when it’s free; or they’ll just download pirated copies of newspapers for their tables. I truly think that the Apple tablet will save newspapers, for two reasons. First, why go to the trouble of rounding up the news you want to read when you can get it all in one place? There are a few trusted newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde – any of which will give you a good overview of the news. Second, why pirate these papers when they’ll cost you less than a dollar a day? It’s too much trouble to spend the time necessary to find and download the files.

Journalism has power, and we can’t afford to lose it. From Henry Mencken (I recently read a biography of him), who, coincidentally, worked at the Baltimore Sun, to Woodward and Bernstein, by way of Albert Camus, journalists have kept people honest and kept us informed for a long time. Without good journalists, we would be a much poorer society.

I think the Apple tablet will change the way we get daily, weekly and monthly news. Because it will not only delivery daily papers, but also weekly and monthly magazines. This new way of getting news will be a paradigm shift for publishing, and will have a huge effect on the availability of free content. While you’ll still be able to get some news for free, the good news – that which is sanctioned by a respected newspaper or magazine, or the analysis that depends on the best journalist – will no longer be free, but it won’t be expensive enough to make you want to seek out free.

I hope that with Apple’s (still only rumored) tablet we’ll see a resurgence of publishing, because the news is too important to lose to free. What’s happened in recent years, because of the Internet, has endangered all of us, because we need the press to serve as a check and balance for government, corporations, and our own stupidity. Let’s hope that Apple’s tablet will pave the way for a renaissance of journalism.

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