On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

Newspapers Have To Live To Tell The Tale

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“In 2010 the only thing harder to sell than a newspaper will be a newspaper company,” Michael Kinsley, a columnist and editor-in-chief of a new website to be launched in 2010 by the Atlantic, wrote in an essay for a special issue of The Economist titled ‘The World in 2010’.

The good news, if any, in this assertion is that the gloomy outlook at the time the special issue went to press was only for the United States. The bad news is that some of the observations made by Kinsley would be applicable to the world at large; slowly but surely. The United States is the right place to begin the argument as the revenue shift towards digital media from the traditional print media has been rising on a year-on-year basis with the last 18 months or so being the low point for newspapers in America. Former Scottish footballer, Tommy Docherty, may not have been totally off the mark when he said, “I’ve always said there’s a place for the press but they haven’t dug it yet.”

The year 2009 has seen some historic newspaper names not managing to find any buyers and ultimately stop printing in the US. “The New York Times, which paid $1.1 billion for the Boston Globe in 1993, spent most of the last year hungrily eyeing bids of under $100m. After years of Micawberism, many newspaper publishers now accept that no amount of cost-cutting and laying off of journalists can keep up with plummeting revenues. Newspapers missed the brief moment when the government was an easy touch for bail-outs of one ‘vital’ industry or another.”

Closer home things aren’t that bad as yet but we are also moving towards a Digital era at our own pace; though speed in the virtual world is defined quite differently than that in the real one. Twitter is a recent example of a spreading ‘Digital Viral’ and one can speculate on the time and resources that would be needed in the real world to build a brand like it. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his brilliant 2000 debut bestseller The Tipping Point explored the social dynamics that cause rapid change. The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea; and it is Gladwell’s gift of story-telling that has given life to the book. Gladwell benefited from the research of epidemiologists but he used his talent to show how social and business change is explained best by looking at it as a ‘virus’.

Just about 18 to 20 months ago I was running after a few columnists at a newspaper house as its Website did not have any blogs and I struggled to convince writers and only got two positive respondents, with much strife, out of a dozen or so that I was asked to chase. For a particular guy I had to do the chasing for almost a month and yet I could not get a 300-word copy out of him; these days no matter what the occasion he is always singing in the background.

The landscape in India is changing but Internet penetration is low and literacy is not that high for a swift change. That is not going to be the case forever and sometime in the future the Digital Media in India would gain critical mass or in other words would reach ‘the tipping point’ from where things start happening on their own. Among the coarse things in the newspaper business the most important is the rising cost of newsprint. Then there is also the environment factor and the James G. Watt quote in Newsweek, 8 March 1982, becomes all the more relevant now: “They kill good trees to put out bad newspapers.”

Norman Mailer, an author, a journalist, a stalwart on radio and television talk shows and winner of most of the major literary awards, but for the Nobel and co-founder of The Village Voice, a weekly newspaper launched in 1955 from a two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village, New York, the initial area of coverage, famously said: “Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.”

This point is also made by prolific columnist Vir Sanghvi in a piece he wrote on a book called Flat Earth News by Nick Davies. “Davies, who has spent a major part of his journalistic career with The Guardian, casts a critical eye on his entire profession—not sparing even the publications he has worked for—explaining why Flat Earth News is taking over. ..But as I come to the end, I can’t help wondering if such a book would ever be possible in India. In our country, the media is content to attack every other institution while regarding itself as being above any scrutiny,” Vir wrote.

The optimism that I share is about the publishing industry and new technology coming in has not changed my view at all and I continue to pay through my nose to buy books; I haven’t seen Kindle and I don’t have a desire for it as a good hardcover is an integral part of what I consider to be my most-valuable possessions. I feel that they would survive the threat from the vapid more easily.

Many observers share the analysis that the big mistake was allowing readers to grow used to getting content free in the first place. Kinsley argues that it is not psychology that is at work here. It is the iron laws of economics. “Why has the internet turned into a disaster for newspapers? Mainly because it destroyed the monopoly that most American newspapers enjoyed in their home towns.” This observation is true for every small or big city in the world. “Every English-language paper published anywhere in the world is now in competition with every other. Competition is what has driven the price down to zero and kept it there.” Applying Kinsley’s logic would mean that the Indian papers would be available in London and New York; but, more importantly, the papers of New York and London would be available in India.

The answer probably lies with what The Village Voice did; if a newspaper in New Delhi tells me what is happening in Tokyo it is great but if it tells me that wood furniture of the highest-quality is on sale two blocks away from my house then it is even better. Kinsley calls this hyper-localism. It may turn out to be the saviour and, therefore, for the first time the most-important team in a newspaper’s scheme of things should be the Metro. It is the City Desk where the wheat needs to be separated from the chaff and the successful editor has to be someone who, for a change, publishes the wheat and throws away the chaff.

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2 Responses

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  1. Very good article. I’ve found your blog via Google and I’m really happy about the information you provide in your posts. BTW your sites’ layout is really messed up on the Chrome browser. Would be great if you could fix that. Anyhow keep up the good work!

    Fanny Stoltenberg

    February 2, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    • Thank you for your kind words. I would try and find out if I can fix the layout for Google’s Chrome. And would check out your vast site at leisure. Cheers

      Deepan Joshi

      February 3, 2010 at 12:22 am


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