How can the venerable daily newspaper survive, even thrive, in the age of the Internet? It wasn't long ago that even mid-size cities had at least two competing papers, with large cities having a half dozen or more.
Newspapers, successfully, dealt with each new competing medium, including radio, television, and cable television...until the Internet.
In the newspaper heyday of the early to mid-20th century, many American households received more than one daily newspaper. By 2000 only half of US homes received newspapers, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Things have only gotten worse since then. The newspaper industry has shed a fifth of its journalists since 2001, according to Editor and Publisher. Large newspaper chains filing for bankruptcy over the past two years include the Tribune Company, the Journal Register Company, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Philadelphia Newspapers LLC, Sun-Times Media Group, and Freedom Communications.
The chief culprit is free access to news over the Web. By 2008 more people in the US were getting their news for free on the Web than paying for it by buying a newspaper or magazine, according to Pew Research Center.
Newspapers may never regain the centrality they had, but they can still find a crucial niche, just as radio did after television superseded it in features and popularity.
Two main things need to happen: 1) Newspapers need to focus more on what the Internet isn't very good at, and 2) Newspapers need to better tap into the best qualities of the Internet.
The Internet's key weakness is lack of credibility, and this is the key way daily newspapers can differentiate themselves. Newspapers need to better leverage their professionalism and the quality of their people by being, and being known as, the source local people go to for what's really going on.
Every time somebody at a daily paper notices important misinformation spreading though a Web site, blog, online discussion group, wiki, or social networking site, the paper should correct it. Newspapers should more noticeably correct the misinformation that inadvertently but inevitably makes its way onto their own pages. Newspapers should also correct mistakes in other traditional media, including TV, radio, and magazines as well as other newspapers. In short, more resources should be devoted to fact checking.
More resources should also be devoted to a traditional newspaper strength, and Internet weakness, and that's investigation, the uncovering of injustices in society. But newspapers should broaden this by focusing not just on multipart Pulitzer Prize efforts dealing with large political or economic issues but also on incisively researched shorter pieces about health, consumer affairs, and other issues that immediately affect readers' lives on an everyday basis. Investigative journalism should be combined with service journalism to make people's lives better by helping them make better decisions with better information.
Daily newspapers can't win any more with speed. Newsprint on trucks can't compete with digital delivery. Instead, the overarching goal should be truth. "Information you can trust" should be the unique selling proposition. What reaches print should be the standard against which other information is judged. Good information transcends itself to become knowledge and sometimes even wisdom.
Along with its low cost and speed, the Internet also excels at volume. There's virtually no limit to the amount of text, photos, and videos that can illuminate a breaking news story and more importantly its essential context.
Every newspaper story should be linked to voluminous additional content on the Web, whether background material compiled by that newspaper or others. More than anything else, linking is why the Internet has succeeded, with sites linking to more information at other sites and people linking to one another. Newspapers should both an end in themselves and a portal to more.
The "fourth estate" of newspapers is vital to a well-functioning democracy, exposing abuses by the powerful in government and industry that otherwise would continue to harm society as a whole. The prospect of a free society without newspapers, or their equivalent, is unthinkable.
As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in a letter shortly after the founding of this country, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
One possible scenario, if current trends continue or worsen, is for newspapers to evolve into nonprofit organizations, receiving foundation money and tax breaks, similar to public broadcasting services today. Newspapers would lose their political endorsements, but they would retain their truth telling.
Reid Goldsborough is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.