Folding newspapers: An ill omen for book publishing?

I was gobsmacked when I read that the Boston Globe might be shut down by the New York Times. I spent a lot of my growing-up years in Boston, and the idea of the 137-year-old Globe going under seems…unthinkable. (An update about that story here.)

The Globe is the newspaper of record for the entire Boston metropolitan area. Following on the heels of that news was the doom-and-gloom pronouncement by Warren Buffet that he would never invest in any newspaper, ever. The newspaper in my own hometown, the Los Angeles Times, is evidently in financial distress too. Columnists have been writing fretful stories about the economic woes of the paper, and I recently spotted a box-advertisement on the front page, which in my mind is the sort of thing they do only in throw-away weeklies. If major newspapers are going under for the third time, what will be next…major book publishers?

I graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1979 (Yikes. I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled). Back then, newspaper reporters were still considered to be the “real” deal. Even though I was enrolled in the broadcasting program, I knew that TV reporters were viewed with disdain (The term “media type” hadn’t even been invented yet).. Inspired by the example of Woodward and Bernstein, members of my class believed that writing, that ideas, that journalists, could make a difference.

Fast forward 30 years, and Oh. My. God. Where are we now? Today’s journalists seem reduced to Twittering, red-and-blue-state cable talking heads. I keep thinking of one particular “news” host on cable who announces every night, “It’s Twitter time!” Newspapers are going away, and the Fourth Estate is going to the twitter heads.

As a fiction author, I have another concern: when I see newspapers collapsing left and right, I worry that the book-publishing business model might be just as fragile as newspapers. Leap forward another five years, and we might be talking about the collapse of major publishing houses.

What do you think? Are newspapers the “canaries in the mine” for publishing? Are they simply the first to bite the dust?

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

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13 thoughts on “Folding newspapers: An ill omen for book publishing?

  1. Kathryn, I too lament the decline of newspapers, real newspapers. I grew up on the L.A. Times when they had superb writers, like Jim Murray, and reporters who knew their trade, and editors who knew the language. I used to love to spend an hour or more reading the paper, double that on Sundays. Who does that anymore? So newspapers as sources of information now give way to the faster, more up to date e-sources…which are also free. There’s no economic way the print-news model can survive.

    Print books are delivering a different product–long form entertainment. The system for delivery will shift, slowly, more toward digital. The publishing houses are scampering to predict that future and adjust to it. I don’t think it’s going to be like the steep decline of newspapers, but I’m not sure what it will look like, either.

    But people will still want stories, and that’s why they need us. Storytellers always survive, but how we spin our tales shifts. From campfire, to troubador, to ink, to print, to….whatever is next, we’ll be there.

  2. James, thank you for talking me down! I feel much better now. I’m terrified of the day, though, that I wake up and there’s no newspaper on my driveway. There’s absolutely no way that my humming computer will ever replace that wonderful ability to browse over the news while drinking coffee. I think people will miss it when it’s gone.

  3. I’ll amplify James’ comments.

    Writers are content providers. How that content is distributed is what is at question these days. Music didn’t go away when downloads outpaced CD’s – consumer’s just opted to get their content a different way. Some say the LP is dead now that everyone buys songs one at a time – but I’m not sure of that. So us content providers might need to rethink the length and scope of our content, but there will always be a need for content.

  4. Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.Books won’t go far. Newspapers are just changing shape. Businesses come and go, even old ones.

    Sci-Fi Author Matthew Selznick is trying a new approach by selling annual memberships to his website at $15 a year. With that, the user gets to read his ebooks in regular installments, along with DVD-like extra content. Or they can just pay the Amazon price and put the book itself on a kindle.

    Newspapers probably need to figure out how to do something similar.

    Of course all of this ebook stuff goes hand in hand with what we discussed Saturday about letters. If the unthinkable happens and technology crashes (in a physical sense) we loose all that data. All of the records. Our history. Paper is the best way to go, as long as the companies can stay solvent.

  5. All good points, but I still want paper! There’s just no replacing it in my reading experience. Maybe that makes me a news version of the horse-and-buggy generation. Maybe younger people will never “get” why older folks can’t enjoy reading the headlines from an iPod-type device while riding the subway. To me, it will never be the same. And then there’s the question of whether the companies will be able to survive the transition intact, financially. If the only people we have left are those who yelp things like “It’s Twitter time!” every night, important stories like Watergate will never get reported again.

  6. I think we have to look at the newspaper problem from the other side, too. Why are so many going out of business? Is it the economy or did the economy trigger their demise brought on by poor management, bloat, wasteful spending, lack of vision, or biggest of all: lack of the ability to adapt to a changing society with changing needs and demands?

  7. I believe with all my heart that content is, and will always be, king, and that therein lies the demise of the daily paper. I grew up on the Washington Post in the morning AND the Evening Star in the afternoon. The Star died decades ago, leaving only The Post. It became this bloated behemoth of a paper, and it, too, is struggling financially.

    Kathryn, it seems that you and I are the same age (at least we had the same graduation year), and I, too, was drawn to the model of Woodstein. Unfortunately, EVERY reporter wanted to be the next Woodstein. Simple reporting has become unfashionable, it seems. In The Post, at least, every major news story is laced with “analysis,” which is modern-speak for editorial opinion, which I learned was supposed to remain on the editorial page.

    More and more, print reporters are doubling as TV personalities, and with all of that come the egos and the paychecks and the book deals that all detract, I think, from the basic skills of reporting. Reporters want to BE the news these days, not just report on it.

    It seems to me as if the old saw of “if it bleeds, it leads” has given way to nothing but negative, gotcha-oriented reporting that used to be the mainstay of disrespected tabloids.

    Come to think of it, it still is the mainstay of disrespected tabloids, and therein lay the seeds of collapse.

    I believe that people still want NEWS; they’re just not able to find what they’re looking for in the major dailies.

  8. Well, several weeks ago the St. Louis Post dispatch “Downsized.” Literaly. It weems like they kept the content, but made the paper physically smaller. Kind of tabloid sized, but floded like a normal newsapaer. I can’t tell if they added more pages or shrunk the font, or maybe there’s missing content I didn’t notice.

    This came after a series of layoffs at the paper, so, I’d say they too are in financial distress.

  9. I’m with you Kathryn – my day isn’t complete without my newspaper (NY Times) on the front step every morning…mind you, I am addicted to the crossword so that is also why I have to have it. There was an article in yesterday’s NYT I think about the possible digital/kindle style reader for newspapers so maybe there’s hope yet!

  10. John, you made me laugh by mentioning “Woodstein”–that’s indeed what we all wanted to be! And I’ll bet there were some missed opportunities during the past eight years. Wlfred, I don’t know if going tabloid-size saves money, but I read that the Post Dispatch ordered furloughs for some of its nonunion employees a while back, and that it’s over a billion dollars in debt; so yes, I would say there’s trouble afoot.

    Joe, you make good points, and I believe they apply directly to the book publishing business model. I know I mentioned this article last week, but in case it was missed, it really lays out how the industry is failing to use technology and consumer research to determine what readers want in books. Interestingly, the article says that the newspaper industry has tons of marketplace research available. So maybe it’s not a panacea, after all. But here ’tis, fwiw:
    http://tinyurl.com/dxwerp

  11. I’m a news junkie, but other than in planes or hotels, I haven’t read a print newspaper in five years, and I couldn’t care less. In fact, I consume much more news in a single day than I ever did before the Web. Every day, I can peruse USA Today, the NY Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, the Seattle Times, and the Indianapolis Star (so I can follow my beloved Colts). I’m in heaven. Without the Web, I would never be able to read all these papers on a daily basis. Plus I hate the large format of papers and the ink you get on your hands. I find it much easier to click to different sites while I’m eating my breakfast than to have a big messy newspaper in front of me that I have to flip through page by page.

    I’m with John. Content is king. The only thing I care about is access and usability for that content. For me, the Web delivers both better than print newspapers.

    And we haven’t even talked about the ecological aspect. We’ll save a lot of trees if we go primarily to enewspapers and ebooks. Dan Brown’s first printing for The Lost Symbol will be five million books. That’s about 5,000 tons of paper products, or about 120,000 trees.

  12. The only thing I’ll miss about the paper if it goes away, are the tech store adverts, and the comics. It’s hard to cut comic out of a screen to tape up in my cubicle.

    On the other hand, there are the cloth composite screens that are as thin as a sheet of fairly thick paper, but have the full display of a 17″ LCD monitor. They can rolled up or folded and carried in a pocket. Once they get the power supply down right the thing will be totally portable in a purse of jacket and can be taken anywhere, like a smart phone or kindle, but feels like paper in your fingers.

    on the other other hand, Leonard says that in the year 2583 we’ll be back to slate and chalk and wall paintings

  13. Boyd, I’m sure everyone will soon learn to love getting their headlines via pixels, like you do. I guess I’m just old-school. Basil, maybe you’ll be able to run off a comic on a color printer to tack up on the cubicle, although they’ll probably figure out a way to keep us from printing stuff due to copyright. Such is the way of a brave new world.

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