Editorial: How newspapers can stop committing
THIS WEEK, we learned that
two of the nation’s most respected newspapers have been sold
for prices that very recently would have been considered
The Boston Globe and several subsidiary publications went for
$70 million, after being acquired by the New York Times for
more than $1.4 billion in the early 1990s. That’s a
collapse in value of 95 percent.
And the Washington Post was sold for $250 million, a small
fraction of its value, which had to be at least $2 billion not
very long ago.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other newspapers around the country —
our own Monterey County Herald being an outstanding example —
are mere shadows of what they once were.
The standard explanation is that these newspapers’ fates were
inevitable, in the same way the whaling industry was doomed
after petroleum was turned into a viable commercial
product, Pullman cars disappeared after the airplane was
invented, and the fax machines all went to the landfill in
favor of email.
In other words, newspapers are losing value, if not
disappearing, because they are obsolete, having been replaced
by a superior medium, the Internet. But that explanation
To understand what really happened to newspapers, and what
can be done to save them, it helps to look at the speculation
about what Jeff Bezos will do with his new acquisition,
the Washington Post. Pretty much everybody has the same
outlook, summed up nicely in a Tuesday column in the very
newspaper Bezos is buying:
“Technology analysts said that the kind of predictive
analytics perfected by Amazon could be used to provide Post
subscribers with personalized news feeds based on where
they live and what they have read before. People browsing The
Post’s Web site or tablet app could be served ads
tailored to their past purchases, and then could buy products
with a single click, media industry experts said. Reader
voices could be integrated into online storytelling, with the
community voting on the most valuable comments,” wrote
Matea Gold in the Washington Post.
To which we say, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Bezos made his fortune selling books, not reinventing the
book. Ebooks, for all their success, have remained basically
the same as their printed counterparts, and nobody
nowhere is calling for the latest frightening crime thriller,
bodice-ripping romance or engaging historical
biography to include “personalized feeds,” “tailored
ads,” and “reader voices integrated into online storytelling.”
Those things would get in the way of enjoying a good
book, for Pete’s sake.
Bezos also sells movies. But online movies are still the same
as the ones you see in movie theaters, and nobody that we’re
aware of is saying that when you watch the next version
of “Gone With the Wind,” “West Side Story” or “Star Wars,”
that it’ll have to be deconstructed into a online
community version, full of twitter feeds, ads based on your
shopping history, and comments from some jerk who
happens to be watching at the same time you are. All
those things would ruin a good movie.
Likewise music. Amazon.com sells lots of music, and most
music is delivered online these days, but listening to it is
still the same experience it has been forever, and nobody
is demanding that the pop song, the symphony and the opera to
be reinvented just because everybody has a smart phone.
Among the world’s intellectual endeavors, all of have moved
online, but only the news business is supposedly required to
reinvent itself to survive on the Internet.
But why should that be? The experience of reading a newspaper
— holding something in your hand, scanning page after page of
headlines, photos, captions, stories and advertisements,
focusing on what interests you and finding much of what you
expect, but also a lot that you don’t — is an experience that
has made humans happy for hundreds of years. Is it really
We say, “No.”
From its infancy, the Internet lured even this country’s most
experienced newspaper companies down a self-destructive path,
but there’s no reason why they can’t get off it now. It
was dumb beyond belief for them to think they could put all
their content online for free, update it constantly — with
hardly any advertising — and still expect their
profitable, $1-per-copy, ad-filled print versions to survive.
They tried it, but it didn’t work, and obviously wasn’t going
Here’s what Bezos should do: Return the Washington Post to
what it was 25 years ago by investing heavily in reporting.
Distribute it once a day with identical editions in print
and online in PDF or other electronic format. He can go ahead
and charge for the print edition, if he feels he must, but the
PDF one should be free. And that’s it. Make the darn thing so
good that everybody will want to read it, and they will.
And the advertising will follow.
Will books, movies and music exist in 100 years? We think
they will. And so can newspapers. Of course, they’ll be
delivered electronically, just like everything else that
can be turned into binary code. But there’s no reason why
newspapers have to be turned into a bunch of online
gobbledygook, instead of the well loved, and highly
profitable, entities they’ve been since the printing press was