Merciless evolutionary forces in the information world are culling the herd, pushing to extinction the slow, the unprepared, the unable to adapt.
For newspapers, it’s a new Ice Age, brought on by a meteor shower of digital alternatives robbing the poor plodding beasts of their very existence.
But don’t start dancing on their graves. This is not just bad news for the press corps, it’s bad news for people in politics, because nothing legitimizes government like a front-page headline or a well-written editorial. Despite our mutual mistrust, government and news outlets enjoy a symbiotic relationship that confers credibility on both. They have to ask, and we have to answer.
The downturn in the news business is everyone’s concern — at least everyone in and around the Capitol. The member’s e-mail newsletter is no substitute for the local paper.
The latest and closest-to-home example came last week when the parent of the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News gave every employee a buyout option — then backed it up with a layoff threat.
It’s not just here, of course. It’s everywhere. The Los Angeles Times. The New York Times. Times are mean and hard.
But with every layoff and buyout, newspapers push themselves, like lemurs, closer to the cliff, making it ever less likely they’ll survive at all.
It’s as if the investor-owners who rule this industry have missed the basic fact that it’s paper and ink that are going out of style — not the information.
By gutting their staffs, papers do a worse job of covering the news, and when they do that, they diminish their brand-name credibility. The masthead — the name of the paper — loses its luster and its value. Without brand credibility, they are nothing. The money saved on salaries is more than lost in diminished potential.
Keep the brand strong, and look for a new way to milk money out of it. Rupert Murdoch didn’t throw $5 billion at the Wall Street Journal because he saw a future for ponderously long streams of pictureless prose. No, he bought the brand, a masthead that says “trustworthy business news” to millions of people who never even unfolded that paper. He bought the credibility.
And yet, tragically, most papers are adopting a strategy destined to kill their credibility, and with it their chances of emerging on the other side of the Big Change.
Who knows how this will all evolve. Will papers become paperless? Will they become simple content providers, delivering news to larger networks that gather the eyeballs and sell the ads? Will the Oakland Tribune become a mouse click on Yahoo rather than a pile of recyclable newsprint? Will news of local government and sports be handed over to amateurs and ax-grinding gadflies?
There is no crystal ball. But it seems clear that any news organization that hopes to survive must evolve, and there’s no way to do that with an empty newsroom. There are still readers. There are still people who want information they can trust. And, as sure as there are car salesmen, there is someone out there who can figure out a new way to make us pay for it all.