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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Dead tree society

"We're sorry but due to production problems, delivery of your copy of the (fill-in the blank newspaper) has been delayed." That, in a nutshell is the sound of a dying industry.

The newspaper business is not as financially bereft as you might think. There are clouds on the horizon as large retailers become larger ones, taking Filene's advertising away along with the name. Heck, those newspaper shareholders are getting worried that their profits are dipping below 20 percent. Lay off some more reporters.

What represents the real troubling future for newspapers is the ink on tree delivery format is dying and our moguls haven't figured out what to do about that. The folks at Federated Department Stores who have swallowed up Filene's and Marshall Field's in their quest to Macy-fy America aren't too keen on running their huge display ads on boston.com.

You can guess I am of a certain age because I actually like to sit with a newspaper. There are advantages: you can take it anywhere: spread out on the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, lie on the living room floor on Sunday with sections spread out, adjourn to the "library" with reading material.

Newspapers are compact and getting smaller and there is an effort to add some respectability to the tabloid format that is so easy to read on the bus or subway (provided you have more than inch of space from the backpack in your face!)

The problem -- and it is huge -- is the delivery system. Once upon a time it depended on kids (and their parents). In the business' infinite wisdom kids were phased out as unreliable. In their place came adults with cars deemed more reliable (a dubious proposition). Take away a kid's first job and their reason to have an attachment to a newspaper. Smart move.

Not to mention the fact that papers that once offered a discount to their guaranteed customers charge a premium ($1.09 per copy for a home-delivered Times) and ask you to pay in advance without offering reliability in return.

So what's the problem, you might be saying, you can always read it online. Yep, that's the problem for the industry all right. Because I can read it online, for free.

There are aesthetic problems: I'm stuck at a keyboard (or a ridiculously tiny PDA screen) and I can't browse a web site in the same way I scan headlines. You must make an affirmative decision to click on a link, open multiple pages to satisfy their needs to satisfy the advertisers they do have with click count. The randomness of choosing at whim based on headline and story placement is gone. I won't even get into the issue of the comics.

And the nightmare di tutti nightmares for the industry: they are giving it away. Sure the Wall Street Journal has a successful online model (and our office subscribes because it is actually cheaper and it really did a number on the thief who kept taking our copy every day!) But no one else has found a model that works financially for access to the entire newspaper. Can you say expense account or tax write-off?

The New York Times is in the middle of an experiment to see if they can charges $49.95 for columnists and other "select" copy. I get the archives for my subscription to the dead tree edition but is that worth $50 bucks? (Or is that "select access worth $600 a year?)

The Boston Herald charges for access to their columnists. (Since I stopped buying the paper because it was sliding way to far downscale and I can hear the Herald opinions on Fox News Channel, why bother?)

Until they come up with a satisfying way to put a newspaper in cyberspace (or until my generation dies out) newsprint will win out over electrons. And until publishers find a successful model to charge for electrons in a medium that was founded on the concept of free. You get the idea.

And there's another problem: younger readers could care less about a newspaper. Or maybe they do. The experiments with papers like the Boston Metro are encouraging -- you see a lot more people on the train with a paper. But for old fogies it's hard to like a paper that takes less time to read than the Herald.

So I'll just wait to see what excuse they come up with today for the lack of a paper before I head out the door. And troll the websites.... and strip the advertiser cookies out of my browser.


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