In case you haven’t heard, let this jolly columnist keep you informed: American newspapers are in big trouble. Many have disappeared during the past 40 years, including several large, really first-class operations like the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Home deliveries and the number of advertisers are all down and, consequently, so are the profits.
Yet, despite the fact they’re shedding employees big time, the cost of operating a newspaper hasn’t gone down; in fact, just the opposite. What this might mean for a free-lance columnist like myself isn’t especially encouraging. And, college freshmen who plan to major in journalism might want to reconsider.
It’s not that people have quit reading newspapers. To the contrary, there’s evidence that more people are reading them today than ever before. But they’re reading them for free on the Internet and in coffee shops.
Make no mistake about it, newspapers remain our chief source of news. At considerable expense, they maintain an army of reporters scattered around the world, digging up the news. Google and Yahoo, on the other hand, can usurp all the important national and international news from online newspaper reports. Before the headlines are published and printed, a story has already appeared on Google, where it can be up-dated every few minutes as a swiftly-changing story may require. (It’s worth noting that the major TV networks also have their own reporters and Google and Yahoo also “steal” stories from them without any negative consequences, just as they do from newspapers.)
Unfortunately, newspapers haven’t figured out how to charge Google and Yahoo for the news they post or how to charge the people who read it. But now, just as a few nerds have began predicting the end of “print and paper” – not only newspapers, but magazines and books as well– a glimmer of hope appears on the horizon.
Alas, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has purchased the Washington Post for $250 million. Of course, Bezos is a billionaire several times over, yet $250 million isn’t chicken feed and he’d hardly lay out that kind of money on a foolish whim.
I think we can safely assume he knows relatively little about the newspaper business and perhaps that’s just what the business needs: an outsider with fresh ideas. Still, at least for the immediate future, he plans to make few, if any, changes in the Post’s operation.
Nevertheless, I feel his purchase somehow signals a positive turn for the future of newspapers. So perhaps I can hold down this little corner of my world for another few years.