I’ve never been a big one for the whole “newspapers are a dead format” discussion. I absolutely love holding the Chicago Tribune in my hands and reading over it at my own pace, not one dictated by a computer constantly calling on my to click something new and shiny. Moreover, when they’re done right newspapers have the ability to give perspective and context in a way that other media can’t since they’re both permanent and daily, allowing for an archived version of a constantly shifting story.
That being said, you can mark the first official nail in the coffin of newspaper viability as being hammered in at about 3AM this morning, January 4th 2006. That’s when hundreds of newspapers went to press proclaiming the glorious news that 12 out of the 13 miners trapped in a West Virginia mine were alive and had been rescued. Mere hours later, as most of us in the U.S. were waking up, listening to the radio or checking the computer for news updates, that story had been reversed. Only one of the miners had been found alive in what turned out to be a true tragedy.
While the story was easily updated on the web, TV and radio, print publications were stuck. Even as I was walking out of work at 4PM there were copies of the papers that had the celebratory headline on their front pages. The problem, as I was discussing with a co-worker, is that newspapers are subject to that most stringent of clockwatchers, the printing press. In order to be on the doorsteps of suburban homes at 5AM the paper has to leave the printing plant at 3AM in order to get to the regional distribution centers and then to the subscriber. And while an edition that is distributed to the area right around the printer might be updated later in the morning should something like this arise, there’s nothing to do about those farther out. And there’s nothing a national paper like USA Today can do. They’re sunk.
And that’s why more and more people are turning to the web for breaking news. Newspapers can still fill an important investigative role but immediacy is what is being sought after more and more. It’s sad but true. While I know newspapers will continue to exist in some form or another for many years to come there’s no escaping the fact that getting this wrong could mark a tetonic shift in the future history of the medium.