Why It's OK for Newspapers to Die
Mar 20, 2009 4:00 AM PT
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased print publication this week to focus solely on the Web, a transition that frightened some in the publishing business, coming so shortly after the Rocky Mountain News shut down. However, as many in the tech industry are aware, this is simply a form of "creative destruction" that should boost both choice and economic activity in the longer term.
"Creative destruction," a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, means exactly what it says -- the process by which a new technology or structure replaces the old and builds a new infrastructure. This is how progress happens and capitalism moves ahead. For a clear example, think back a century or so, when Henry Ford released his first prototype automobile, relegating the horse and buggy, and the buggy whip industry, to obsolescence.
Most would agree that such creative destruction resulted in a good outcome for society. Yet, not everyone is willing to let such revolutions take place without a fight. Indeed, some politicians have proposed bailing out newspapers, as the federal government has done for failing automakers.
"The media is a vitally important part of America," said Frank Nicastro, who represents Connecticut's 79th assembly district and advocated for a state government bailout of The Bristol Press. Likewise, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hinting at federal intervention to help the embattled San Francisco Chronicle.
"We must ensure that our policies enable our news organizations to survive and to engage in the news gathering and analysis that the American people expect," wrote Pelosi in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
No one disputes that a strong media is important for democracy, but the core issue is what that media should look like.
There is "panic that newspapers are going to disappear as businesses," said author Steven Berlin Johnson in a speech at the recent South By Southwest Interactive Festival, "and then there's panic that crucial information is going to disappear with them -- that we're going to suffer as a culture because newspapers will no longer be able to afford to generate the information we've relied on for so many years."
It is entirely possible that newspapers as we know them today may soon cease to exist. Still, as Johnson correctly points out, an examination of how the Web has evolved to cover technology news reveals the Net's potential for covering other topics as well.
"The state of Mac news in 1987 was a barren desert," Johnson said. "Today, it is a thriving rain forest. By almost every important standard, the state of Mac news has vastly improved since 1987: There is more volume, diversity, timeliness and depth."
That is what can and should happen to the local news -- and toward that end, Johnson has started Outside.in, a local news Web service.
Resource limitations make it difficult for a single newspaper in Los Angeles or New York to cover every relevant story of local interest. When the Web takes over, however, there can be multiple blogs and companies competing to provide coverage, and the information becomes much broader and richer.
This transition from a top-down method of news reporting to a more distributed system won't be easy at first -- and, like the horse-and-buggy drivers of 100 years ago, many old-school journalists will find themselves looking for a new job.
Yet this change, a clear form of creative destruction, will create a more responsive and richer world of media with more stories and more ways of organizing and validating those stories than ever before.
Before sounding the alarm or dipping further into public funds, politicians, bureaucrats and would-be saviors should note that not all newspapers are dying. The Bristol Press did, in fact, find a new owner -- without a government bailout that could well have influenced the way that publication covered the news.
Although papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News have ceased distribution in print, the news itself will thrive in better form. Such an outcome is a bright light for the future of democracy. Politicians should let it happen, and they can help the transition by increasing the transparency of government.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.