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Newspapers: Shut 'em Down

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"Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people that never knew Lord Jones was alive." - G. K. Chesterton

There comes a time to stop fretting and make a decision. The great angst over the future of newspaper journalism has become an unnecessary expenditure of energy. Choices have been eliminated by the marketplace. Certain eventualities are going to unfold and they cannot be stopped. The only option is to act now and take control and help the future get here ahead of schedule. Do the obvious: shut down the printing presses.

Maybe that's dramatic, but it is going to happen, eventually, anyway. And the reasons to do it now are compelling. As long as there is a print version of the local paper or the New York Times or L.A. Times, advertisers will keep buying space in the paper. If it goes away, they have nowhere to purchase those ads other than on the paper's web site. Sure, some of them may try radio or TV or another internet site but not enough to ruin a paper's finances.

Readers will have nowhere else to go, either, if they want to go to their old reliable source of news and information. The numbers of unique visitors to a newspaper's web site will go up dramatically, if the print version disappears. And as those numbers rise the rates charged for ads can also increase. Of course, the web also offers a definitive method for tracking metrics, too. An advertiser can see how many people have clicked on their ad and then executed the "call to action" that was promoted. There is no more precise measurement for assessing the value of an advertising dollar. Calculating the impact of a full page ad in a newspaper is a slightly more complex and imprecise process.

The numbers already show that printed newspapers are becoming dinosaurs too blind and dumb to find a tar pit to stumble into and die. The mighty NYT sells about a million newsstand copies per day and under 1.4 million on Sunday. The downward trend will not be reversed in the wireless economy. Ad revenue keeps dropping every quarter and that is not just a result of the economy. The NYT can probably continue to print and deliver the Sunday version because it has become such a cultural icon and ritual for many Americans, but the rest of the newspapers need to cease and desist.

Corporate accountants will argue that even the declining circulation figures are still providing a nice cash flow to the bottom line but no one wants to acknowledge the fact that such revenues are coming at the expense of growth for the web site. There is considerably more profit potential on newspaper web sites when the print versions die off. All of those car dealerships in your hometown that buy those Thursday ads in the paper can now spend that money on the website and drive visitors to their own site for interactive views and info on cars and trucks. Duh........

How hard can this be? The future of journalism is already manifesting itself on this web site as you are reading the Huffington Post. News won't just be generated by proprietary staff reporters. The process of delivering quality journalism will involve aggregation. Major metro and national papers like the NYT will lose some reporters and bureaus in the transition but their partnerships with reliable outside sources can supplement any shortcomings in coverage. Does a paper need a full time correspondent in India or can it rely on a stringer relationship or a wire service with a good reputation in the event of a Mumbai attack? The answer is obvious.

Papers and their publishers and editors have a fond affection for their bylines and datelines but, with rare exception, the public is oblivious. We didn't know Judy Miller until she began to let her perspective distort her reportage. And we don't know most of the other reporters at any paper, either. Just give your readers the news and make sure the source is reliable. This has already been happening in TV news at the local level for a number of years. In the heady days of big ad bucks, local news directors used to love to send their anchors and correspondents to cover big events. Hardly any station can still afford this luxury. They increasingly rely on affiliate services to give them a taped or live story with a custom outcue and viewers do not know the difference. In fact, the journalism tends to have more quality since the person working the locale on a daily basis generally has more nuanced information about the topic than the guy from Des Moines who showed up in his new London Fog to do a live remote broadcast.

Instead of delaying this transition to a full digital world and seeing how long they can sustain their print versions, media companies need to plan a full stop of printing presses and turn their web sites into their solitary news products. They can execute this strategy now or they can keep feeding money and intellectual energy into the already dead carcasses of their papers until they realize, too late, the paper is rancid with decay and the readers they might have captured on their web site have already gone elsewhere. Seems a simple choice.

Turn off the printing presses.