Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Newspapers are over, but news is not

The Chicago Tribune is going into bankruptcy. Detroit papers are reportedly considering limiting home delivery. The Cincinnati Enquirer is the latest to announce layoffs.

For the last few years, journalists have protested that, all signs to the contrary, newspapers are so essential there's no way they could disappear. But there is no other way to interpret the above events, except that newspapers are disappearing.

Don't believe me? Pull out a piece of paper. Plot these latest developments on a graph. Then plot all the other recent developments in the newspaper industry: declining readership, plummeting revenue, layoffs. Plot a trend line. And now ask yourself: Where is the arrow headed? It's not ambiguous. The end point is the disappearance of newspapers.

But this is not cause for despair. The disappearance of newspapers is not the same thing as the end of news.

This is a difficult point to grasp, if you are one of the folks who believe that newspapers and the news are the same thing. But they're not, no more so than "horse and buggy" is the same thing as "transportation." Newspapers are merely one kind of delivery vehicle for news. The news will continue, even if this particular delivery vehicle disappears.

"Really?" you ask. "If you're right, show us the new vehicles, the 'motor cars' that will replace the 'horse and buggy' newspapers."

Ah, yes. Well that's the thing. The new vehicles haven't been invented yet.

Sure, there are a bunch of experiments out there. Voice of San Diego. spot.us. outside.in. Some people look at them and mistakenly believe that, because they are the only alternatives out there, they by definition constitute the future forms. They look at those incarnations, see all the ways in which they fall short of what newspapers provided, and conclude that their position is correct: Newspapers are so essential they cannot fail, because only they can provide the public services so essential to a democracy.

But this is faulty thinking.

To look at Voice of San Diego et al and believe they are the final forms is to misunderstand how innovation happens. You don't go from one fully designed form to another. Rather, as you evolve from one to the other, you go through a series of iterations, a series of experiments, a series of throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what sticks. From those series of experiments, from those series of learnings, you eventually develop the final forms.

Anyone who has worked in Silicon Valley understands this. Very few of the ideas we had about how to use the Internet back in the 1990s--and the websites and businesses we developed based on those notions--still exist today. (Pets.com, anyone? Space.com? ExciteAtHome?)

But every website that does exist today is a descendent of those experiments. Every website, every contemporary use of the Internet is built on the learnings of those prior experiments.

And so it will happen in the news business. The new forms won't appear before newspapers die completely. (I actually believe it will take 20 years before the new forms are fully baked.) But the new forms will appear, eventually.

Again, it's experience in a place like Silicon Valley that gives one that certitude. New forms always emerge to satisfy needs. And there is a desire for news. Just not in the form that it's currently being delivered. People once liked and found value in the newspaper delivery vehicle. Just as they once liked horses and buggies. But no more. The old delivery vehicle no longer meets readers' needs and expectations. Which is why they are abandoning the form, even as the need persists. And given the persistence of the need, entrepreneurs and other problem-solving types will continue tinkering with forms until they figure out the new ones.

And that's why there's no need to worry. Newspapers are dying. But the news will survive. Just not immediately. And definitely not in any form we are used to seeing.

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