Myth: The Web and digital technologies are killing news organizations

June 14, 2010

By Kevin Goldberg, special counsel, Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth

As the old saying goes: “Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

Most people believe that traditional news organizations — and newspapers — are dying. That’s not true. In fact, while advances in technology may adversely affect their bottom lines, most news organizations are resilient and will adapt. The result will be a more interactive, informative and useful resource that will remain an indelible part of the American experience.

While newspapers — and the “traditional” news media generally — are unquestionably feeling the sting of declining revenues, it does not portend the death of newspapers. That is because newspaper content remains a valuable commodity. Evidence for that conclusion can be found in the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2010 “State of the News Media” report, which reported daily newspaper circulation of 48.6 million and Sunday circulation of 49.1 million in 2008. Those numbers tell us that newspapers still have tremendous appeal. They also enumerate an audience that is more than large enough to build a business on.

Those who continue to predict the eventual death of newspapers point to the rise of blogs and social media as the “next generation” of news. But these sites, for the most part, do not generate original content. They redistribute existing content. According to a survey released this year by the Newspaper Association of America, newspaper websites are still the primary source for local information, local sports and local entertainment. They also rank “first among all sources for trustworthiness, credibility and being the most informative place to find local content of all types,” according to the NAA report.

The reason is clear: no other entity has stepped up to do the kind of painstaking reporting we get from newspapers and other traditional news organizations. David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and creator of the HBO series “The Wire” testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee in April 2009, stating: “[t]he day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing, is the day that I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance.”

And professional reporting is what drives most of the news circulated on social media networks like Twitter. As the analyst Ken Doctor has noted, the URL shortening service alone generates an estimated 400 million referrals of news and information every month. Newspapers remain the original source for a huge amount of that content.

So in a world where content is king, newspapers remain the “kings of content.” And the King may actually be strengthening his hold on the throne. The Pew report cited above offers the following praise for newspapers' adoption of new technologies:

  • “Typically, such sites have developed well editorially, becoming the locus of breaking news and offering an array of Web-native features like blogs, discussion chains, interactive presentations and video.”

Newspapers are finding new ways to distribute their content online, creating a better user experience in the process. The citizens are allowed to enter the castle and speak their minds, in the form of story comments, user blogs, and other self-publishing tools. They also have new ways of getting there, with content delivery systems such as the Kindle and the iPad. In fact, when web traffic is included, more people than ever before now read newspaper content.

So, yes, people may be spending less time with the print product. But they are not spending less time with the news. While the news business will no doubt experience huge changes in the years to come, until bloggers and citizen journalists start engaging in the newsgathering that produces real content, news organizations such as The New York Times, Des Moines (Iowa) Register and Glens Falls (N.Y.) Post Star will remain the primary purveyors of news and information in every local community.

Kevin Goldberg, special counsel, Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth