Online newspapers: Undead meat

We’re having a bit of a larf at the writerly J-school dudgeon into which Neil Morton has whipped himself over at Shift. He wonders why anyone younger than him would bother reading a print newspaper. The future augurs ill, he says. (Warning: Epileptics or anyone with design acumen might as well not bother reading the story, what with the flashing geegaws. One notes the absence of a low-bandwidth or printable version, which single-handedly defeats the argument that online news beats print.)

Morton’s thesis is hooey and speaks much of the poor taste and cluelessness of the Toronto new-media demimonde, who epitomize Lord Tubby of Black’s dismissal of journalists in general as “ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually-dishonest and inadequately-supervised hacks.”

But first, Shift catfight memorabilia.

Early in this century, we enjoyed a superexclusive audience with Neil Morton in the nondescript, painfully corporate, hence soul-deadeningly-uncool office building that boasts acres of false marble and houses Shift’s nondescript, painfully corporate, hence soul-deadeningly-uncool parent minimonolith, which is to genuine magazine concerns as Kia is to Mercedes.

En route to enjoy a superdeluxe double espresso in the building’s VIP coffeeshop, the elevator doors opened onto the majestic false-marble lobby. Suddenly we espied one woman clawing at another woman, finishing the job by grabbing her purse. (In the indignity hierarchy of catfights, it could have been worse: Our lady of the foul temper could have scratched her eyes out.) A number of men, all of them apparently strangers, pulled the two wymmynz apart.

“Stay away from my husband, bitch!” one combatant hissed at the other.

And thus began our tête-à-tête, where a pitch for a front-of-book photo plus 100 words pushing our accessibility fabulousness went over like flatulence at the Xmas table. Consider all conflicts of interest, grudges, and sour grapes hereby declared.

Why are print newspapers not, in fact, dead meat?

  1. Online newspapers – the Web versions of dead-tree editions – are newspapers. Morton cites five of them himself.
  2. Online-only news sources have a hard time making money. But print newspapers’ ad lineage is declining, too, particularly in lucrative (i.e., overpriced) classified ads, which are migrating online, where they simply work better (when tied to a decent search facility, at least).
  3. Online-only news sources have trouble establishing credibility, while a century-old newspaper brings that to the table automatically. Credibility here has a number of facets: Newcomers may have upstart street cred with just enough reliable information to be worth reading (Cory Doctorow writes that the Internet is just reliable enough; is this another example?), while strictly-reliable print newspapers’ Web sites can carry the albatross of olde-worlde mustiness.
  4. It should be easy to make a print newspaper’s Web site work, even if the only content available is shovelware. Any paper that can’t make it work essentially steals defeat from the jaws of victory.
  5. If newspapers are smart, they’ll understand that their appropriate economic model is the music industry: We may no longer need major labels to distribute music, but we sure as hell need them to make new musicians known. Similarly, it’s hard to turn a new online-only paper into the equivalent of a Top 40 hit. Print newspapers have built-in name recognition online. They’re major labels, and their journalism is the talent.
  6. People who grew up with TV read newspapers less than people who grew up with radio. The online kidz read papers even less than that. This is barely even worth mentioning: Sexy electronic technologies displace the vulnerable components of previouis analogue technologies. We hate to quote Douglas Rushkoff, but here goes: “Much to... parents’ astonishment, however, the more technologically mediated a kid’s lifestyle, the more he longs for contact with physical reality, and the more he values real objects for their authenticity. Whenever a new technology arrives, we learn the true nature of its predecessor.” Or, as we put it, “consistent with the history of new media... Weblogs add to existing media tropes and are not locked in a fratricidal battle against whatever came before.” You don’t have to be an old fart to understand that reading from a screen all the time is a drag.

Next, let’s poll Neil Morton about the cultural importance of videogames. There’s another generational polarizer, one that pits disheveled Pavement manqués in thrift-store T-shirts against those who dress like adults.

Posted on 2002-01-25