By J SWYGART
That the newspaper industry is going through some difficult times, with print versions indeed likely headed for the way of the dodo bird and 8-track cassettes, is fairly common knowledge. This historic shift from newsprint to electronic forms of information distribution is seen by many as little more than the a natural evolution of technology and day-to-day life in the 21st century. Nonetheless, it is more than a little disconcerting to an aging journalist — one still a handful of years shy of retirement age — who is desperately clinging to a dying industry.
But a pair of announcements in the past week have cast a new, albeit murky, light on the future of newspapers as a whole.
First the “bad” news, from a journalist’s perspective. The NOLA Media Group, a newly-created entity which owns The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans, announced on May 24 that daily publication of The Times-Picayune will cease sometime this fall. Printed versions of the newspaper will appear only on Wednesday, Fridays and Sundays, while the paper’s website will be updated around the clock.
Once the change takes place, New Orleans will be the largest city in the United States without a daily, printed newspaper. And that’s sad.
Ricky Mathews, president of the NOLA Media Group, said in a statement that the changes are essential to keep the news outlet alive.
“NOLA Media Group will significantly increase its online news-gathering efforts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while offering enhanced printed newspapers on a schedule of three days a week,” Mathews said.
New York Times reporter David Carr bemoaned the pending change at the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, writing that “in a city where not much of anything works, the newspaper does. ... The Times-Picayune has always been an excellent daily with a balky, dated website. Orders from headquarters aren’t going to reverse those competencies on a dime. The Times-Picayune will become the largest guinea pig so far in an experiment that will end in either death or transformation.”
We’ve seen no mention of how The Times-Picayune will be available to online viewers once the change is implemented, but the Internet distribution of newspaper content free of charge goes to the heart of a deep philosophical divide within the industry itself. One school of thought is that free content leads to website “hits,” which are appealing to potential advertisers. The other is that giving away content that print subscribers pay for goes very much against the grain of a for-profit enterprise.
Count among those who endorse the latter view one Warren Buffett. Often billed as the world’s most famous investor, Buffett earlier this month announced that his company — Berkshire Hathaway — is likely to buy more newspapers in the next few years. Berkshire announced earlier this month that it plans to buy 63 newspapers from Media General Inc. for $142 million. The company’s holdings will include 26 daily newspapers.
Buffett said Berkshire will look to buy small to mid-sized newspapers that cover their communities well. “We will favor towns and cities with a strong sense of community, comparable to the 26 in which we will soon operate. If a citizenry cares little about its community, it will eventually care little about its newspaper,” said Buffett, Berkshire’s 81-year-old chairman and CEO, according to several media outlets.
But Buffett believes all newspapers need to quit offering their product free online.
“The original instinct of newspapers then was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print,” Buffett wrote. “This is an unsustainable model and certain of our papers are already making progress in moving to something that makes more sense.”
A story by Tony Luckett on the website dailyfinance.com agreed wholeheartedly, suggesting that the biggest mistake within the industry is providing stories for free over the Internet and causing “many people to lose the newspaper-buying habit or never acquire it in the first place, because we can all pick and choose stories online. When newspapers started to give away their only product in the early days of the commercial Internet, they created a generation of users who have become used to viewing their news online for free. I’m not convinced they will pay up once papers start to go behind paywalls,” Luckett wrote.
Media commentator Jack Shafer said Buffett’s recent newspaper acquisitions don’t indicate the industry has returned to health. “But if he starts selling, you’ll know that it’s dead.”
Stay tuned. Now go wash the ink off your hands.