Why Newspapers Need to Survive

The Internet's new clothes

News of newspapers collapsing has suggested the obvious conclusion: Newspapers are in the past; the future belongs entirely to the Internet.

You can take any skepticism I might have for what it's worth. I have a conflict of interest. I like newspapers, and I'm a print journalist. There are fewer of us every day.

I can stipulate that the Internet will be a major reality for the rest of our lives. I've been online since about 1993, and use it daily.

But I've come to realize something, and forgive me if this offends some sensibilities. The Internet is fallible. It's not a deity, and it's not an inexorable natural reality, like idiocy or death. It's a human invention, and as long as it lasts, it will be wholly dependent on the daily enthusiasm of the millions of mortals who keep it going.

Our observations of the Internet's vigor are based entirely on how it has seemed to us in the first blush of its popularity, the first 15 years or so of its existence as a consumer-accessible phenomenon, when it's been the exciting new thing. Everything that's on the Internet today was put there by people who were (or still are) excited that, suddenly, it exists. For the generation that first encountered it, consumers have contributed to their new invention without thought of payment for their services, just for the fun and gratification of being part of the big new global thing. Can we count on ourselves to be so enthusiastic, and so earnest, forever? Or even for another 15 years?

Will future generations—the maintenance generations—keep the Internet going, with the same level of volunteer energy?

I'm not qualified to answer. I just know people get tired. The Internet didn't reinvent human psychology. The Internet has changed radically even in its short history, much for the better, some for the worse. We can't count on the idea that Providence will insure its improvement with each passing year. Things fall apart.

I've had the experience, maybe you have too, of looking at websites of apparently lively arts organizations, or of prosperous businesses, and finding them to be out of date, sometimes months or even years out of date. Many websites on the Internet—I sometimes suspect it's most of them—hail upcoming events in the past.

Many of these out-of-date websites are like fossils, reflecting those heady early days when we boasted at cocktail parties, "we've got a website now!" After you get used to the fact of having a website, maybe it's not quite as charming to maintain one. Might that malaise one day creep into the whole phenomenon?

But I use the Internet every day. Rewriting some old stories for a book project, I'm finding new stuff I missed when I first researched these stories years ago. Google has changed my life. Lots of things I used to run back and forth to the courthouse or the library for—run up and down two flights of stairs, pull out some hefty tomes along the way, or crank through a microfilm—I can now just type it all up in my office. I no longer have to run down to the newsstand to buy newspapers. Now I can just sit in my office and read them.

In the Internet era, I have gained 35 pounds. There's no clearer proof of its success. American technology and American obesity whistle by each other on the sidewalk, pretending they don't know each other.

It's less clear that the Internet is invulnerable to the variable winds of culture.

In all the news of collapsing newspapers in the tight economy, some are quick to assure us that recessions are irrelevant to the Internet life. But the Web may ultimately be more vulnerable than newspapers are.

Some websites and databases are subscription-based, paid for directly with your credit card. So far, that's been disappointing, even in fair weather. Consumers are much less likely to buy online subscriptions than print subscriptions. There may be something primal in our preference, that we don't want to pay for something we can't hold in our hands. Subscription-based websites answer to the economy, especially after the start-up honeymoon's over.

Many websites are supported by advertising, as are newspapers. So far, website ads, pop-ups, etc., still don't command the interest print advertising does. Today, after more than a decade of trying to make Web-based advertising, and journalism, practical, revenue from websites remains anemic compared to print. Most online news sources are still subsidized by print and television.

And then there's the Internet's dirty secret. Website advocates like to say that "it doesn't cost you a dime." But the Internet as a whole constitutes the most consumer-expensive mass medium in history.

The Internet is completely dependent on people buying computers. Not only that, but buying them frequently, and paying the bills to keep them wired. The AT&T bill for our home computers is six times as much as our simple phone bill used to be. We also buy software updates and debugging programs and repairs, which average hundreds a year. Also, e-subscriptions for any specialized databases that go much deeper than Wikipedia: the more dependable a source is, the more likely it is you'll have to pay for it separately. The main exception is government-sponsored websites like the census—which of course we pay for with our taxes.

And after three or four years, we have to buy a new computer. Even Goodwill won't accept one that's five years old. It's considered worthless. Goodwill has no comparable expiration dates for other appliances. Bring them a 50-year-old radio, they'll take it. Not computers. It's not even easy to recycle them. It's expensive to consumers and, therefore, vulnerable.

The thinking is that, even though we didn't seem to need home computers 20 years ago, computers are now universally and permanently popular, therefore people will always buy computers anyway, therefore Internet media is sort of free. That assumption's based on a fairly healthy economy and unflagging fascination.

In a real Depression, you'll always be able to pick up a newspaper without major investment. That is, unless they don't exist