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Editorial: How newspapers can stop committing suicide

Published: August 9, 2013

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 impossibly low.

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In other words, newspapers are losing value, if not disappearing, because they are obsolete, having been replaced by a superior medium, the Internet.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 is wrong.

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. 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 dead?

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 to.

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 invented.