Columns » The Monitor

Does print have a future?

Pixels are gaining ground fast

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Every week, I schlep a heavy bag of newspaper to the recycling bin. Most of it I haven't even looked at. It's full of color ads, coupons and other stuff I'm completely uninterested in. I love reading the paper in the morning. I want it printed out for me, and I want to see how the stories are placed. But every week I can't help thinking, there's got to be a better way.

Newspapers face a paradox: Circulation keeps going down, down, down. Fewer people are subscribing, and those who do are getting older. In 1985, 62 million Americans subscribed to a daily paper. This year, 45 million did. Newsroom layoffs and investor panic have ensued.

Yet the number of people reading newspaper content online is growing. The Newspaper Audience Database reported last month that nearly one-third of the U.S. population, 43 million people, visited newspaper Web sites in one month. Newspaper sites comprise 11 of the top 25 news and information sites.

The elusive youth market is reading the paper--it's just reading it on the screen. Like it or not, online news is the direction we're headed, which means newspapers need a new business model, and they need it real quick.

And the same is true, to a lesser extent, for book publishing, which has struggled for years to grapple with digital technology. Publishers are engaged in a battle to stop Google from scanning a massive collection of books to create a searchable text database--a battle similar in some ways to the music industry's fight against file sharing. Once you digitize something, it's nearly impossible to control where it's sent or how many copies can be made.

Two online companies in particular loom over the future of print media: Google and Craig's List. Both began as idealistic companies amid a clutter of startups that were going for the fast buck. But search engine innovator Google and online bulletin board Craig's List stayed around in large part because they focused on and constantly advanced technology. Now they're giants, and they're scaring people.

Craig's List vs. newspapers
Strange that a name synonymous with Web idealism should strike fear and loathing in the hearts of America's newspaper publishers. Craig Newmark, who founded Craig's List as an online community bulletin board in San Francisco in 1993, has since become a reluctant media mogul of sorts. Craig's List grew by offering free online listings for apartments, cars, jobs and dates, and by refusing to take advertising. That's right, no ads. And Newmark still personally vets the sites for spam (users can flag a post for review). The site made money by charging employers a small amount to place ads for jobs. By the mid-1990s, everybody in San Francisco and New York used Craig's List and the organization (then a non-profit) was expanding into cities all over the country. (It reached Raleigh a few years ago.) The classifieds of newspapers, including the one you're reading, have struggled ever since.

A feature in last week's issue of the SF Weekly (www.sfweekly.com/Issues/2005-11-30/news/feature.html) fleshes out the Craig's List conundrum. It estimates that Bay Area papers lose $50 million a year in classified ad revenue to Craig's List and asserts that a significant number of newsroom job cuts are the direct result of Newmark's enterprise, which is now a private, for-profit company that's as protective of its finances as any privately owned newspaper.

To a certain extent, blaming Craig's List for newspaper woes is blaming the messenger. Newspapers just haven't yet been able to use the Internet to their advantage financially. (Advertisers haven't been easy to drag along either--have you noticed how many national newspaper sites have crappy, horrible pop-up ads? That's because the clients still clamor for them.) But the losses to journalism are very real. Good journalism is expensive, and we can't afford to lose it.

Newmark recently announced that he's developing a citizen journalism project that he hopes will help. Citizen journalism is the idea that non-professionals can gather and report the news and publish it online, vetting the facts through a kind of open source, Wikipedia-type debate. Dan Gillmor, a former newspaper columnist and an advisor to Newmark, is the guru of the citizen journalism movement. His book We the Media lays out the concept and his blog is part of a Bay Area effort he founded called Bayosphere (www.bayosphere.com).

There's a lot that's obviously good about citizen journalism. Reporters rely on information from the public, who are often more dogged and persistent than we are. But then we check that information, and we look for more information, and we have a whole set of editors and colleagues to back us up. In other words, citizen journalism is not a panacea for what ails journalistic credibility these days, and it's no replacement for the very expensive enterprise of investigative reporting. But editors and reporters would do well to look at Greensboro's News & Record, which has embraced the idea, adding blogs and reader-generated features to its Web site, thereby drumming up a whole lot of readership and loyalty (www.news-record.com).

Google vs. book publishers
Remember ebooks? Remember hearing about those newfangled hand-held computers that would display the pages of a digital manuscript, sort of like a ... book? Readers will always want the printed version, especially when it's 300-plus pages with a beautiful cover. But consider that the majority of books lose money, while only a handful make enough profit to float the entire operation. And no one really knows in advance which will be which. So those unpopular books sit by the thousands in warehouses that have to be maintained. The overhead's a bitch.

Four big publishing houses filed suit against Google in October over Google Books, a new venture that will scan, digitize and make searchable the entire collections of four university libraries and the New York Public Library. Readers can then search the entire text, and the search engine will display a few sentences on either side of the search term. That's hardly the same as making an illegal copy of the book. But publishers and the Author's Guild (which has its own suit) say Google should pay royalties, since the search database is proprietary--Google owns the content of the database, which is comprised of the authors' works.

Google claims Fair Use, the doctrine that says it's OK to use a small portion of a copyrighted work for educational purposes, among others; that idea's been backed up in the case of book critics citing text to make a point. They also say they're saving orphan works, books that have long since fallen into obscurity. Asking for permission to include a book when no one knows who owns the copyright is so onerous, it effectively means the work will be lost. As Google rose to fame, their benevolently ambitious intentions--to organize all the information in the world--earned them cred on the Web. But the publishers don't trust them. Once all those books are digitized, what's to stop Google Books from going further?

Meanwhile, books are coming unbound through other outlets: The Open Content Alliance, backed by Yahoo, has a searchable online archive that copyright owners can opt into, though that doesn't solve the orphan works problem. Amazon already offers searchable PDF pages of thousands of works and plans to sell individual chapters soon.

The bigger question about digital books is how to organize and find them, which gets at the issue of metadata, the information about the book.

The Dewey decimal system has effectively been replaced by the Library of Congress's Catalog in Publication system, which allows for much better cross-referencing. Taking the human intelligence behind that kind of categorization and moving it into the digital realm is where an innovative search company like Google could do the most good.

There will always be books, and there will always be news. What's unclear is how we'll pay the journalists and the authors, how readers will gain access to the information they need, and who will control that information.

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