Something catastrophic happened to the newspaper industry this month, a catastrophe that the industry itself does not appreciate: Apple shipped an iPad.
More to the point, Apple shipped the first tablet that represents the future of all tablets, which has a screen of higher quality than the glossiest print magazine. High definition tablets will do for print newspapers what megapixel cameras did for film.
Why breaking news is broken
People who read news find news stories through a wide range of avenues. They go directly to the websites of specific newspapers, visit Google News, or click on links to news stories in blogs or social media postings, among other things.
There are advantages to electronic news. It can be more timely, more relevant and less expensive than news that's published in print, to name a few. But there are two ways in which the average approach to electronic news consumption is inferior to reading print newspapers, from the reader's perspective.
First, electronic reading is superficial. I suspect that people think they read news online, but in reality they barely skim the stories they look at. As I've discovered personally, the transition from a print subscription to reading online generally involves being less informed about current events.
Slate magazine's Jack Shafer theorised about why this is the case: First, newspapers are less distracting. Reading a newspaper does not require you to sit at your desk and use the same machine you use to work, read email, check your social networks and engage in countless other diversions that are just a click away.
Shafer also expressed the belief, and I agree with him, that physical newspapers command more "respect, engagement and focus from readers". The second advantage of physical newspapers is that they present a broad range of stories, exposing you to topics and ideas that you wouldn't seek out on your own. Electronic news consumption, on the other hand, tends to be more linear, with readers turning to the same subjects, ideas and even opinions each time they go online, thereby reinforcing what they already know and believe.
Electronic news, as it is currently consumed, is a disaster for newspapers, because the industry hasn't figured out how to monetize it. According to an industry report released this month, the newspaper industry gains $1 (£0.60) of electronic news revenue for every $10 (£6) it loses on the print side.
More important than revenue losses, in my opinion, are the horribly wasteful costs of running a newspaper. Newspaper editors and publishers might spray coffee all over their screens upon reading this, given the way cutbacks and layoffs are decimating the industry. The problem is that newspapers look at costs and efficiency from a company perspective, not an industry perspective.
In fact, the whole model of what a newspaper is and how it's put together is perfectly antiquated and obsolete, a throwback to the telegraph era.
Before radio, newspapers held a near monopoly on the delivery of information about events in the world, the nation and local communities. In the last century, newspapers fulfilled a wide variety of other roles, offering public notices of every description, plus opinions, games (like crossword puzzles) weather forecasts, arts reviews, display advertising, classified ads, calendars of events and even serialised fiction.
Newspapers were the indispensable, all-purpose information source for educated citizens.
Today, that description is no longer applicable to newspapers. Instead, it applies to the Internet. But all the myriad roles that newspapers played are each handled by separate organisations online. Game sites offer games. Weather sites offer weather. Craigslist and other such sites offer classifieds. Advertising networks sell and place the ads, and so on.
The transition is not just from paper to electronic media, but from doing everything to doing only one thing. Unfortunately, that doesn't work from a business perspective. Display and classified ads were where the money came from, in addition to subscription revenue.
In Internet parlance, news attracted eyeballs to newspapers and advertisements monetised those eyeballs. In the electronic era, newspaper companies are doing the cost part, but other companies are doing the revenue part. And that's why newspaper companies think they're in trouble. But they're wrong.
Newspapers fail because they're inefficient
At the time I was writing this column, Google News offered 3,436 stories about the opening of the movie Hunger Games this weekend. Of course, many of those are copies of stories disseminated by news syndicates, or versions articles that have otherwise been repurposed from other sources.
But there's little doubt that at least several hundred separate news organisations devoted reporting, writing, editing and other resources to that story, repeating the exact same short list of facts about the movie. Hundreds of writers, hundreds of editors, hundreds of copy editors and hundreds of web production staffers were all paid when five or 10 of each would have done the trick.
If the pizza industry worked this way, you'd order a pizza and 300 delivery people from 300 restaurants would show up at your door in 30 minutes or less. You'd pick one, and Google would be paid a dollar. The restaurants would have a hard time staying in business.
Worst of all, the radical duplication of effort in the newspaper industry results in an inferior product. Hundreds or thousands of newspapers are each trying to cover the same top 100 stories every day, while tens of thousands of stories go unreported. Instead of spending their talents and energies chasing down original or unique stories, reporters are competing with each other to cover the exact same stories.
The Internet will make news efficient with or without newspapers
News isn't going to remain inefficient. The Internet will ruthlessly punish the wrong approach and shamelessly reward the right one. In fact, it's already happening.
Some of the best stories these days are dug up by amateur bloggers and citizen journalists who work for free. Why? Because professional reporters are too busy duplicating each others' efforts.
Five years from now, a "newspaper" for nearly everyone will be a high resolution tablet running apps that aggregate news from a variety of curated sources.
Something like this already exists. For example, I use an app called gNews that gives me global, national and local news "curated" by Google News algorithms. I read it in the same way I used to read the paper newspaper, and not the way I skim news online when I'm at my desk.
Google does an incredibly good job of giving me one news source for every topic, and ignoring dozens, hundreds or thousands of duplicate stories. The overall breadth of coverage is much better than The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal combined. The quality of the text and pictures is many times higher than any paper newspaper. There are no ads. And it's free.
In my experience, getting electronic news on my desktop PC is inferior to reading a paper newspaper, but getting it on my tablet is superior. Tablet and app-based news is great for me, but a disaster for the newspaper industry. This is not how it should work.
Most reporters should be independent syndicated writers or should work for news agencies, such as Reuters or the Associated Press. Almost every story written should be put up for sale in a central clearinghouse of some kind where reporters' and columnists' reputations could be established and communicated. Various curators and news organisations would use this clearinghouse to cherry-pick stories. Premiums could be paid for exclusive use. Assignments could be made to well-placed reporters with special access.
Most newspapers should just abandon their print operations, so those costs don't need to be maintained. Nearly all reporting should be local, and more "national" and "world" coverage should just be "local coverage" from a distant place. Far more of the stories we get should reference and be informed by the original reporting of various journalists, and this referencing should influence their reputations and pay, just like the selection of their work in the central clearinghouse.
Most important, monetisation would reflect readership. The stories I read on my iPad would be paid for by me either directly or through some advertising monetisation process.
Instead of circling the wagons and building higher paywalls, as The New York Times has recently done, newspapers need to recreate the industry, starting with understanding that the public will abandon both paper and inefficient newspaper organisations in favour of tablets and curated global sourcing for stories.
What needs to happen now is that the newspaper industry needs to abandon its delusions, give up paper, stop duplicating efforts and get professionals involved in the tablet-based, localised, freelanced, curated future of news.