Monday, November 17, 2008

The surge in newspaper demand on Nov. 5 don't mean a thing

When the news started coming out on November 5 that people were lining up to grab copies of newspapers the day after Barack Obama was swept into office, journalism discussion boards around the country lit up. "See!" they all said, in one way or another. "People really do want their newspapers."

Or, as Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi put it in a letter "To newspaper readers everywhere," which was posted on Poynter: "Finally, You recognized something in me [the newspaper] again. Something that had been dormant all these years. That You needed me."

But they got it all wrong.

To back up a second. When you design a piece of software, or probably when you design anything, you draw up a list of "use cases." These are the scenarios in which you expect your users to need to, well, use the tool you're developing. From those use cases, you extract "requirements" (ie: the system needs to do X, the system needs to do Y). And from those, you decide how you're going to fashion the thing.

What happened on the Wednesday after election day was simply a use case--the use case of "I want a memento of this momentous occasion." That's a very different use case than "I want to get news." To draw a larger conclusion about the future of newspapers than simply that people wanted a keepsake in the wake of a dramatic event is like suggesting that Burl Ives (were he still alive today) has a recording career simply because people like to listen to a particular song of his around the holidays. It's faulty thinking, and it only keeps us from clearly understanding what it actually happening in this business (ie: fewer and fewer people want to get their news from dead trees) and even further from finding our way forward.

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