For those who don’t follow the non-stop coverage* of and debate over the demise of American daily newspapers, I recommend James Surowiecki’s piece in the current New Yorker, News You Can Lose. (Surowiecki, a staff writer at the magazine, is author of “The Wisdom of Crowds”.)
Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt** was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product. Does that mean newspapers are doomed? Not necessarily. There are many possible futures one can imagine for them, from becoming foundation-run nonprofits to relying on reader donations to that old standby the deep-pocketed patron. It’s even possible that a few papers will be able to earn enough money online to make the traditional ad-supported strategy work. But it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper; more important, we’re almost sure to see a sharp decline in the volume and variety of content that newspapers collectively produce. For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.
*If you want to follow it, I recommend the firehose of links to coverage of the remaining days of newspapers from the Poynter Institute’s human-powered meme-tracking phenomenon known to it addicted fans simply by its creator’s last name, Romenesko.
**Surowiecki is referring to Theodore Levitt’s description of a concept he termed “marketing myopia.”