April 9, 2009
Newspapers are dead. Or so some harbingers predict. Most likely they’re right too, at least in the traditional forms we think of them in. Sure, there will be the “big ones” who might not ever fall by the wayside — The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The National Enquirer — but that might be it. All the other ones are at the mercy of an ever-digitizing society. Information is becoming more universal and an inherent right of all people, meaning newer generations are being born into a sense of entitlement: They don’t think they should pay, or wait, for their information.
And they shouldn’t. There’s no reason to. Now, this doesn’t mean reporting or news itself will die with the newspaper; it just means ink on paper is a dinosaur that is going to go extinct. News is now at the point where it happens and is reported almost simultaneously, so any medium that stretches out that divide of time is going to die. Newspapers with their 24-hour turnaround time are hours behind blogs and online newspapers, which are increasingly lagging behind twitter. So why would I pay for that? Simply, we shouldn’t. That’s the reason why we see the Rocky Mountain News, the Baltimore Examiner, the Albuquerque Tribune, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and so many more locking their doors.
To me the most interesting part of this death spiral is watching newspapers frantically grab more and more buckets to bail water out of their Titanic of an industry. That’s why I got such a kick of this article, via Variety. It is about an L.A. Times article that ran front-page Friday. The story is about a rookie L.A. cop named Ben Sherman as he learns the ins and outs of the streets on his very first day on the job. The problem? Ben Sherman isn’t real. He is a character on a new NBC television show called “Southland,”and the story is actually an ad.
TheTimes didn’t really try to disguise this fact; the ad is marked as an ad and is in a different type face, but it is certainly set up to look like a news story. Beyond that, the front page of a newspaper, especially one as big as the L.A. Times, has long been considered sacred territory not to be messed with. The front page is supposed to be the model of journalistic integrity, where the most serious reporting takes place. But more and more, as newspapers look for new revenue streams to try and keep their ship from sinking, the front page is just looked at as wasted ad space.
The best part about the ad is that it was initiated by the Times itself. They went to the producers of “Southland” and proposed the idea, which was quickly scooped up. Don’t get me wrong either, I love the newspaper. I love getting up in the morning and reading it over a cup of coffee, especially the L.A. Times, which is one of my favorites. But c’mon, that seems pretty desperate.
I am not offended by this advertising display in the least. I think that the newspapers that actually weather the storm, if any do, will be the ones that move away from the traditional model of selling the advertising real estate of a physical object. Branded content, more savvy digital marketing and cutting the glut that traditional newspapers accumulated while they thought they were an indispensable societal asset are a start, but it still won’t save most. I am interested to see what next steps newspapers will take to postpone the inevitable. I suggest guest reporting by famous people about themselves. It can be a narcisisstic PR outlet that can go to the highest bidder. Goodbye journalistic integrity, hello self-indulgent, six-page biopic spread by George Hamilton. Nice.