I started a series of articles last week on PI sports writers who have been involved in some way covering Washington Husky sports. The paper will likely close within the next couple of weeks so this is a great time for a little reflection on the subject.
Every sports fan has their favorite sports writers and I actually really enjoy the writers at all the local fish wraps in the Puget Sound area. Living in Chicago gives you a much better appreciation of the talent these guys possess. I am not saying there isn't journalistic quality in the Windy City but Seattle has been blessed with writers who have a lot of talent, compassion, and most importantly deep local roots.
These are just the beginning of very tough and challenging times. Some say we haven't seen anything like it since World War II and the Great Depression. Newspapers as we know it are all going away and they aren't going to replaced in a way we like online or at all in some cases. Writers and staffers across the country are losing their jobs each and every single week. The sad reality is that only in rare cases are they going to be able to find another job doing the same type of thing.
The Seattle Times to the naive may seem like the big winner because they finally succeeded in killing off their arch rival the Seattle PI. The opposite is actually true because the PI and Hearst Corporation get to make an easy exit while the Times is stuck with all the actual expensive infrastructure that will have to be liquidated in the near future when that institution invariably faces bankruptcy even in a large one newspaper market.
We all talk about the future of online newspapers but the reality is that the technology and embracing of that technology by the populace will not happen in time for the majority of local newspapers in the country to be saved.
Reading the paper online is fine for the reader but there isn't enough room for the advertising content to offset the cost of producing the quality content we are used to. That being said most of the opportunities for that advertising content has been siphoned off by Google, Craig's List, and the like.
It is all about advertising revenue not the actual content. Online newspapers like print newspapers don't generate enough advertising to support the type of content we have enjoyed since Guttenberg invented the printing press.
There are promising things out there like Kindle Readers which some day may evolve into a viable way to distribute the news and display advertising but to be honest we are five to ten years away from those devices bring developed into the appliances they need to be before gaining acceptance and use of the general populace.
The future of newspapers
The optimum newspaper device will have a thin organic screen that can be folded or rolled just like a piece of laminated note book paper and have the life of a plasma television. It will be user operated by a touch screen and be able to display full color animation.
The organic screen will have to be bright enough so you can read it easily in daylight and all this technology will be operated by a thin printed low voltage power storage source that has the weight of less than a penny and a charge that can last up to 24-36 hours of continuous use.
It will have WIFI and Bluetooth built in so that it can update automatically wherever in the world you happen to be. It will sport a single or maybe a double page format that you can operate with your finger just like todays touch screens but be a feather weight device.
You will be able to subscribe to whatever content you like and you will most likely pay for that privilege on a subscription basis because advertising revenues alone will not be able to support the price it takes to produce the quality content needed to be as relevant as todays printed newspaper.
The cost of these appliances will have to be extremely inexpensive because they are going to be made for the masses. Like the personal computer or cell phone almost every single person on the planet will eventually own one of these gizmos.
How far are we away from this probable reality?
Rigid low tech black and white versions of this format will be available later this year that make the new Amazon Kindle II look like an antique in many ways. The full blown version available at an affordable price that could save local newspapers is probably a decade away.
The game for newspapers like the Seattle Times is to stay alive long enough for this type of technology to become a reality and be universally accepted. They also have the unfortunate disadvantage of being stuck with all the bricks, mortar and infrastructure that are causing them to bleed assets. The end of the PI actually buys them a little more time but does little to solve the long range problem of print survivability.
The game plan for the Hearst Corporation and others like them is to mothball the unprofitable local brands they do own and replace them with skeleton staffs who will run an online newspaper to preserve the brands until the day this type of technology is available and widely distributed.
The next five to ten years are going to be very tough for this industry until it succeeds in this vision of reinventing itself. The Seattle Times feels that they can be profitable again by 2016 if they can hold on that long. In the meantime they and other local papers will continue to cut everything so they can just survive.
The fall out in all of this is the loss of traditional local journalism during this reinvention phase. Cost cutting will create a consolidation of national and local news gathering services. In the end cash rich entities such as the Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp could be among the survivors and ultimately the arbiters of what you read and how you ultimately formulate your opinions.
I guess that is the true tragedy of living in a one newspaper city, region or perhaps nation. The different points of view the local independent press has supplied for generations is in danger of being replaced by a one world sanitized corporate press release.
It all sounds a little Orwellian doesn't it?
It may be 2009 but it has all the earmarks of the beginning of 1984.