August 24, 2009

How We're Killing the Newspaper

It's a growing trend: move more information online and remove it from the location it's been traditionally published. We've been seeing this more and more lately. It started with catalogs, which seemed like the best fit for the internet. You could look at the items and shop anytime. However, then came something more near and dear to many people's hearts, the television listings. We all know they're available online, and that's great when you're working and want to plan out your evening and see what's going to be on. However, when you're in your living room in front of the TV, and you want to see what's on now, don't you really want to grab the television section of your Sunday newspaper and just look it up? For those people that don't have Guide-enabled TVs, and don't have Tivo or any other on-screen directory listing, the Sunday TV section was the mainstay of their television experience, the trusted friend that shared couch space but never grabbed for the chips nor balked at the channel selection. But no more. It's been axed long ago, in just about every major newspaper and many smaller ones. Readers were urged to "check their local listings online", never mind that there's still a large contingent of (mainly older) folks that wouldn't know how to navigate to tvguide.com if they had to.

Now another blow has been delivered to these same folks: the removal of the movie theater's listings from the newspaper. In a recent story that shows the progression of this, it's detailed that papers are pulling the movie listings mainly because of one thing: they never had any control over it in the first place. Rather than the community service most folks assumed it to be (after all, movie listings had always existed in the paper) it was instead something very different: it was a paid advertisement put there by either the theaters or the movie studio in general. That being the case, the financial environment lately has necessitated lots of cost-cutting measures, and this was one of them. Apparently the movie theaters and studios think that they're already reaching most of their potential audience members via the internet.

But are they? According to recent statistics, internet usage has indeed grown to encompass the majority of the country, sitting at 74.7% as of this year. While this may initially seem to back up the action to move more data online and remove it from newspapers, consider this: that leaves 25% who don't use the internet. Or, to put it another way, a full quarter of our population. We all know who they are; they're our grandparents, maybe even our parents. They're aunt Sophie who's the nicest person you'll ever meet but never got into computers. They're the guy down the street who stubbornly refuses most technology. They're also the guy who spent years in the technology field during his career, and now shuns all high-tech gadgetry as a way to get back at the career he spent so long toiling at, a kind of middle finger as he collects his pension. These are the people who are being left out, now robbed of their ability to flip open the newspaper to see what movies are playing.

This move also pushes us more and more into the mobile internet territory. While the newspaper used to deliver all this data to us everyday, and it was totally portable and able to be accessed from just about everywhere (i.e., you could buy a newspaper in just about every town, big or small, in the country) now that data is being pushed online with certain expectations. The expectation is that you'll be able to access it, not only from your computer and your easy-chair, but from wherever you are, via your internet-enabled phone. That's right, this is the final piece of the puzzle, the cell phone. As cell phones become more like smartphones, and everybody has one with a data plan, it's expected that we'll all be able to get to this data that's been ripped from the newspaper and plunked online. It's expected that you can get your movie listings, sports scores, weather, and television listings anywhere, at any time, from your phone. While this might certainly leave out the same non-participants we listed before, that list certainly grows shorter when you're dealing with a cell phone. After all, grandma might not have any interest in computers or the internet, but she does have a cell phone in that purse of hers, and certainly someone could show her how to retrieve basic internet from it, even if it's not from a web browser but instead by something like Google SMS, which will return internet data to you in a text message. See, there's many sneaky ways to get the data you need, and not all of them involve a browser. But more and more lately, none involve a newspaper.

And when you put all that together, along with the decline in advertiser dollars in newspapers across the country, and the overall decline in their subscription base, you've got the perfect storm for the decline of the American newspaper, set out to pasture by the arrival of the internet and your cell phone.

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