Without fail, any movie that is set in the 1920s or 1930s has to have a scene where a newspaper spins into the frame with a dramatic “EXTRA!” printed on the front page. This is usually followed by an image of a young boy on the corner shouting “Extra! Extra! Mob boss gunned down by Feds!” or something to that effect.
Can you imagine an “extra” edition of a newspaper today? By the time the special edition went to print, the cable news channels would have dissected whatever the news was for hours on end and bloggers would have already uncovered some smoking documents that the mainstream media was too lazy or inept to discover.
Let’s face it, newspapers no longer break news. Indeed, for national or international news stories, most newspapers don’t even report the news. Instead, they rely on the AP newswire or other sources and simply run someone else’s article verbatim.
Newspapers once also served a purpose of providing data that wasn’t available anywhere else. For example, the multiple pages of stock prices, or the statistics from all the major sports. These days, this is a total waste of paper. If you care about your stocks at all, do you rely on tomorrow’s newspaper to tell you how your stock did? Of course not, you simply add your stocks to the front of your “My Yahoo” page, or just login to your brokerage account. I actually wonder why newspapers even bother to print stock prices for 10,000 stocks daily anymore. Who reads them?
The same is true with sports results. I can get a complete recap and box score of any college or professional game within 30 minutes of the end of the game online. And I can chat about the results with other fans, and even watch the press conferences online. By the time the newspaper shows up in the morning, I’ve already poured over the stats for hours.
So what purpose do newspapers still have? Well, as I see it, there are two reasons to read a newspaper these days: entertainment, and analysis. Entertainment comes in the form of feature stories, human-interest articles, columns, and cartoons. The Wall Street Journal, for example, always has at least one wacky story on the front page that makes for great water cooler discussion.
By analysis, I mean things like investigative reporting, and editorials. The New York Times does a great job of taking a news story and dissecting the meaning behind it, and in a way that is much more sophisticated than a cable news network, and more reliably accurate than a blog.
Of course, with the exception of a few newspapers, all of this content is available online for free. And often the online alternatives (particularly for entertainment) are far superior to the options in your local newspaper.
In the end, it seems like a losing battle to me. Newspapers originally broke the news, but that role has been taken over by TV (and later the Internet). Then, newspapers provided data that you couldn’t get elsewhere, but now that data is actually far less useful and far less timely than the personalized data you can get online. Now, newspapers are a combination of entertainment and analysis, but there are so many free alternatives online, it seems like this is a risky way to sustain subscription levels.
I admit that there is something comforting about reading a newspaper in the lunchroom, or on a long train ride, or at a coffee shop. In this information-overload society, there is something to be said for an information-provider that is physically limited and therefore must be selective about what to include and not include.
But I’m also in my mid-30s, and I am pretty sure that folks ten years younger than me would much rather text message on the train or read email in the lunchroom than pick up a newspaper.
At best, a newspaper today is an alternative form of entertainment, competing with thousands of blogs, Web sites, You Tube, and hundreds of TV channels. But it’s one which costs money to read, is hard to handle, is untimely, unpersonalized, and environmentally unfriendly. Like the Pony Express, the telegram, and travel agents, it’s only a matter of time before the sun sets on the newspaper.