The newspaper industry is in big, big trouble. That should be obvious by now. But if it isn't, consider this: America's flagship newspaper, the New York Times, is considering selling its stake in the Boston Red Sox just to stay afloat in 2009.
The Atlantic magazine speculates that the New York Times could go out of business this May.
Whoops, did I prepay my subscription through 2010? To stay afloat that long, reliable sources say the newspaper may have to sell its profitable internet site, About.com.
It pains me to say this because I'm a newspaper brat, but the newspaper industry has nobody to blame but themselves. My 94-year-old grandmother was more receptive to new technology.
I vividly recall when America's #1 afternoon daily, the Detroit News, switched from typewriters to computers. Some wag put an inflatable man in the middle of the city room so reporters could punch it when they got frustrated by the new technology. It was fun to watch -- a perk I enjoyed as a little girl because my dad was City Editor -- but it also sent a message about their attitude toward computers, and foreshadowed a deep-seated distrust of the internet.
What if instead of despising the internet, newspapers had partnered years ago with Silicon Valley software geeks to develop a social networking technology like Twitter? Something (like Twitter) that allowed sellers to easily post online classified ads in 140 characters or less? Something (like Twitter) that allowed buyers and sellers to exchange information without revealing their personal email addresses? Odds are some guy named Craig wouldn't have cornered the market on classified advertising.
Imagine if this new technology (like Twitter) also turned out to be great for breaking news? Last month a Twitter user was on the Continental Airlines jet that skidded off a runway at Denver Airport. He fired off a "tweet" after safely exiting the plane: "Holy f**king s**t -- I was just in a plane crash!" Now that's immediacy.
The bell is tolling loudly for hard copy newspapers. The younger generation gets its news online. There's no way around that fact. I repeat: there's no way around that fact.
But even if the Times converts to a digital-only format, they need to figure out how to post ads that don't annoy readers. While we're thinking out of the box, what if instead of full-screen ads that pop up and block stories, they offered portals to products and services we actually want? For example, if the Huffington Post had a Little Black Dress Big Sales Page, I'd click on it daily because the perfect LBD has become my white whale. Unfortunately, the next time I read the Times online I'll get hit in the face with an ad for a lawn mower. What am I going to do with a lawn mower in downtown D.C.?
Newspapers have great capital: talented reporters with superb rolodexes. But if the bigshots at the top don't join the rest of us in the 21st century soon, those writers will be out of work, and you'll be getting most of your news from bloggers like me. I'm not convinced that's a good thing.