Journalists, a perverse lot, like to announce the death of great institutions. Long-time newspaper readers have lived through the death of the Canadian Conservative party, for instance, on at least five occasions. Book critics regularly declare serious fiction dead. Media reporters claim that network TV is expiring. Even so, it's curious that journalists have now developed the creepy habit of predicting that daily papers are about to gasp their last. Editors and publishers on newspapers from the New York Times to the Toronto Star sound as if they're rehearsing their Famous Last Words.
Staff layoffs underscore these lugubrious pronouncements but in certain ways this remains a good time for those who love newspapers. Newspaper writing has never before been so well read (counting on-screen reading, of course) or so lavishly distributed. It's amazingly accessible. Searching the Web for details on a big event, I find myself reading stories published in New Delhi, Prague and many other places. The Internet makes every newspaper a world newspaper.
Nevertheless, nobody claims that the business is booming. A blog called Newspaper Death Watch ("Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism") has cropped up, the work of an American journalist who expects a Renaissance in our craft when online newspapers wipe out the printed kind.
Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time, writing in his old magazine, declares he's worried ("the crisis has reached meltdown proportions") but believes he's glimpsed the future and imagines it will work. It involves readers paying whenever they receive information online.
That's a delicate matter. Years ago publishers assumed they would charge their on-line readers. Microsoft, when starting Slate magazine in 1996, assigned marketing gurus to figure out precisely how much money readers would pay for a superbly edited online magazine. After many experiments the answer came back: Nothing. Slate has been free since 1999.
So have most other newspapers that initially charged fees. They give away their content and depend on advertising for all their revenue -- an arrangement that has not produced wonderful results. Readers believe it's their right to receive information free over the Internet though they routinely pay for it when it comes on paper.
Isaacson believes newspapers will be saved by a micropayment system that follows the example of the music business. In the period 1999-2001 the Napster music-sharing service tried to make recorded music free to everyone. When that was declared illegal it seemed likely to go underground. Instead, the music business was saved by Steve Jobs and iTunes payments: When you order music, iTunes delivers it and charges the fee (often 99¢) to your bill.
Isaacson sees online readers paying a penny, a dime, a dollar or whatever the price for an item or a whole issue, after someone develops a system that works with one click. This will only improve journalism. Charging all readers for content will force discipline on journalists,
Isaacson says. "They must produce things that people actually value." Meanwhile, print editions can also appear so long as they sell.
John Honderich, the former publisher of the Toronto Star, recently surveyed other payment methods in an article headed, "All the news that's fit to fund." He mentioned the French plan to buy every 18-year-old a one-year subscription to a newspaper of his or her choice, which sounds to me like a sure way to kill the whole business. He mentioned that in Canada we have long had a state-funded broadcaster but he stopped short of advocating a newspaper equivalent of the CBC.
Honderich also mentioned Pro-Publica and The Fund for Investigative Journalism, foundations dedicated to underwriting the kind of reporting that newspapers now find hard to pay for, and Spot. Us, a nonprofit group that organizes "community-funded reporting."
But a certain tone has been set and we can expect that, at least for a while, the more funereal prophecies will dominate the discussion. Michael Hirschorn, writing in the January-February issue of the Atlantic, jostles to the front of the line of pallbearers with the direst prediction yet: The New York Times is hurting so much that it just might go out of business -- "like, this May?"
He admits that's unlikely but insists the print edition will disappear, "sooner than most of us think." He cheerfully predicts that four-fifths of Times journalists will be laid off, the remainder will buckle down to more serious coverage (no Style section!) and the Times will acquire a new sense of life, though it does sound rather more like death.