Has print had its day?

 

Are newspapers over? Is there anything papers can do that would get you to buy them and read them every day? Is there any reason to preserve their form and function, any vital purpose they serve?

At this moment in media history, newspapers have never been more pressed to define themselves, or done a worse job. All over the information spectrum, media audiences are fragmented, drawn to the timeliness, convenience and immediacy of cable news, the Net and the Web. Slow to grasp the implications of emerging information technologies such as radio, TV, cable, then the Net and Web, papers have been asking themselves more or less the same questions for half a century now. What should we be? What do people want of us? And newspaper readers have been asking the inverse: do we need papers anymore? Is there anything in them for us?

One thing is obvious: the answer doesn't really lie in the focus groups and marketing sessions that have become a feature of newspaper industry planning. Nor does it lie in the proliferation of mostly boring online versions newspapers that, with few exceptions (the Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, USA Today, the Boston Globe), divert resources, compete with their own hard-copy versions and make little money, at least so far. The challenge for newspapers is the same one it's been for nearly a half century. It isn't technological. It's creative. They don't tell us things we don't know. They don't offer us good writing or strong opinion. They don't even have good comics any more. And their coverage of technology generally sucks. And profoundly so.

In the midst of the greatest information revolution in human history, it's hard to point to a single newspaper that has radically altered its mission, content and appearance to keep up with the Information Revolution and the spread of digital information.

In recent years, newspapers have remained graphically impaired. They seem oblivious to the graphic revolution that has swept magazines and is spreading through the Web.

Newspapers continue to cover new media technologies and popular culture poorly, alienating young and future audiences. They have ceded good writing to magazines, publishing and websites.

Newspapers seem almost stupefyingly oblivious to the fact that they aren't in the breaking news business anymore. Fifteen to 24 hours after CNN and innumerable websites reported that George W. Bush would soundly thump John McCain in South Carolina, most newspapers reported the news on page one the next morning as if none of their readers had heard it before, despite the fact that almost all of them had.

As the Internet and the Web spawn ferocious and idiosyncratic commentary, democratising opinion all over the country, newspapers cling to stuffy and elitist op-ed pages, where opinion is generally confined to a "left" and "right" while voice is usually given to elite claques of pundits, academics, authors and CEOs.

Technology, perhaps the central social issue of our times - and without a doubt the biggest ongoing story in the US and much of the world - is spawning a host of significant issues of relevance to almost everyone: genetics, artificial intelligence, open source and free software (and social) movements, patent, copyright and intellectual content questions, nano-technology, super-computing, the runaway rise of the Internet, the Web, and e-commerce.

How many of these stories make their way to the front pages of newspapers? Few, and then rarely. Newspapers are still mired in antediluvian and phobic notions about technology - is Johnny getting onto the Playboy website, is it safe to use your credit card online, are predators waiting to stalk your kids, are hackers waiting to invade your website, does the Internet promote loneliness and isolation?

Newspapers are the scolds of the digital age, shrieking and clucking about a changing world (the Internet, the Web, movies, TV shows, rap, hip-hop, kids today) like temperance ladies wandering into a bar.

The press will obsess on the semen on Monica Lewinsky's dress, but still won't take technology seriously. Newspapers still don't recognise that that the Internet isn't a sex story or a business or cracking story, but increasingly, the biggest story of our time.

In Code, Lawrence Lessing of Harvard, writes about the evolution of new laws in cyberspace. In Hamlet On the Holodeck, Janet Murray, of MIT, writes about the emergence of new kinds of culture - gaming, MUDs, hypertext - among the gifted geeks and nerds on the Internet. In Genome, Matt Ridley writes about the staggering implications of the human genome project. You will hardly ever see these issues on the front pages of newspapers, or anywhere inside. Newspapers are also struggling to define evolving definitions of culture, leisure time, recreation and amusement. Opera, classical music, hard cover books, art museums are one kind of culture. But there are new kinds - elaborate and creative gaming and video cultures, creative coding, the booming business of Web architecture and design, proliferating weblogs (hives of individual opinion and expression), vast messaging systems and services such as AIM and ICQ, collaborative global information-and-software sharing movements such as Linux.

Few newspaper readers have even heard about these new kinds of culture. No wonder kids - especially geek and nerd kids - have abandoned papers in droves.

This timidity and lack of risk-taking is astounding, especially for an industry that doesn't let a day go by without lamenting its declining place in the world, and wondering what on earth it should do to compete with CNNism, Salon, and a plethora of other competitors.

It's hard to know what might work for newspapers, since there is no newspaper that has tried anything that could even remotely be described as radical change. Is it too late? Do any of you read newspapers? Do you see a future for them? Is there anything they could do that would make you want to subscribe to and read them, either in hard copy or online form?

What do you think?

Jon Katz can be contacted at jonkatz@slashdot.com