For newspapers, it's back to the future

Thomas Jefferson famously said "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." If he were alive today, I think he'd look at the troubled state of the industry and say, "Is that thing a newspaper?"

I don't mean that snidely. It's easy to be snide about modern newspapers, and governments, and indeed about Jefferson, who in turn was very snide about the defects of journalism in his time. But I think his initial reaction to today's newspapers would be an expression of bafflement at the format.

He might be startled by the vulgarity and puzzled at the mildness of the political invective.

But what would really surprise him would be all the advertisements. Here my colleagues on the business side sob "What ads?" And of course I know about the relentless, technologically driven decline in ad revenue. That's why I invoke Jefferson, to insist that advertising is not as central to newspapers as we might think.

Recently in these pages David Warren warned that "The future of newspapers cannot be assured by making them any more frivolous or sensational ... The cost-cutting should be aimed at eliminating the frivolous, and concentrating instead on the classical function: fearless reportage and truth-seeking in a world that has always been too full of lies." Indeed. So forget truth and honour while I prate about technology.

I'm not some dizzy pseudo-conservative who thinks economic progress can forgive our trespasses or deliver us from evil. Rather, like Marshall McLuhan, I study modernity to avoid being run over by it. And in the process I note that technological change created the modern newspaper so it is unreasonable to complain, and obtuse to deny, that it is contributing to its decline.

Late 19th-century "convergence" of rotary presses, wood pulp paper and better graphics made cheap magazines and newspapers possible just when corporations wanted publicity for their newly packaged and branded products. Centralized production for a mass audience, supported by advertising, made such good economic sense that the United States went from fewer than 600 daily papers in 1870 to more than 2,500 by 1909, and circulation rose to more than 24 million. (It also worked immediately for radio in the 1920s.)

Unfortunately the microchip came along. Then some darn fool invented the Internet (I think it was Al Gore) and wretched entrepreneurs promptly created countless new ways to interact socially, politically and commercially. Including connecting buyers with sellers. That's what's doing us in on the advertising revenue side and regrettably the Internet is bigger than we are and we can't make it go away by shouting or banging pans.

So we need to rethink our business model. To be blunt, a newspaper is not essentially a bunch of ads with some facts and opinions jammed into the "news hole" because without that guff there won't be readers to look at the ads. It's a business that gathers and filters information, then writes about it for literate, engaged people. I don't resent that advertisements have paid my wages. But those days are going fast, and we must start raising money primarily from readers.

Or rather, go back to doing so. And why not? Newspapers flourished economically and culturally on that basis in the 18th and 19th centuries and can do it again in the 21st.

Here the Internet is friend as well as foe. Electronic delivery saves huge sums on paper, ink, machinery, maintenance, heating, property taxes, trucks, gasoline and labour. And clever business people keep improving the on-screen reading experience.

Of course we must get the content right. And if we do, we have a big advantage over bloggers. G.K. Chesterton warned that cities are parochial because their size and diversity let us consort only with people like ourselves. The Internet makes this problem far worse and a good newspaper is one way of combating it. (A bad newspaper, by contrast, is a wasteful way of repackaging elite prejudices about trivia, and if we go broke doing that we have only ourselves to blame.)

Here I am not chasing the will-o-the-wisp of "objective" coverage. Old-tyme newspapers tended to be organs of opinion, which is fine by me. But done right, they offered informed opinion to intelligent readers willing to pay to be made to think rather than merely emote.

That's the essence of a newspaper: the news, not the paper and certainly not the ads. And obviously no one said the job would be easy. But hey, the modern decentralized economy brought back the 18th-century coffee house.

Why not the newspapers they used to read there, too?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson