Newspapers have long been an important part of my life. Whether it was, if returning home from downtown Chicago with my mother in the 1970s, the effort to ensure that we secured for my father the “final markets” edition of that day’s Chicago Daily News (not merely the “latest markets,” I was taught to discriminate), or reading the New York Times in the 1980s while off in college and getting a broader sense of the world, or in the 1990s moving to Milwaukee and coming to know my adoptive city in part through its paper (regrettably, after it had become a one-newspaper town), newspapers have been for me, as for so many others, more than even the primary source of news. That remains the case, even if we are “reduced” at home to taking the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune.
Today of course the internet offers both access to far more newspapers than even an out-of-town newsstand (to use an almost anachronistic term) and a threat to their viability, it seems. I wonder what the effect of this will be on our own region.
While I have been wondering about this for a while (or at least since Doonesbury was recently removed from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, presumably for expense reasons), an essay in the most recent New Yorker by James Surowiecki particularly prompts this post.
Among the essay’s more interesting observations, at least for me as a one-time regulated-industries lawyer, is this: “In a famous 1960 article called ‘Marketing Myopia,’ Theodore Levitt held up the railroads as a quintessential example of companies’ inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Levitt argued that a focus on products rather than on customers led the companies to misunderstand their core business. Had the bosses realized that they were in the transportation business, rather than the railroad business, they could have moved into trucking and air transport, rather than letting other companies dominate. By extension, many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.”
This is not the extent of Surowiecki’s observations. For example, he is not altogether critical of newspaper management, observing, in particular, that “[t]he peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular” (he refers, of course, to the blogosphere’s reliance on newspapers). And he states that “it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper.” This last is an especially arresting comment, as newspapers for well more than a century have played such a large role in defining cities’ sense of themselves.
I would be interested in others’ observations on these matters.