Ten More Years

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, gave an interview with the Washington Post on June 5 in which he said:
[T]here will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, giving the raspberry to print people
He must have read my last post!
As I started to explain in that post, I’ve been worrying about how this whole business is going. Let me lay out some basic parameters of my worrying.
Evidence of the newspaper’s demise surrounds us. Newsrooms shrink and so do newspapers. The popular HBO drama, The Wire, depicts the financial strangulation of a metropolitan daily. My three children, intelligent and in their twenties, have not purchased a newspaper in five years.
Big chunks of the modern newspaper are being hived off and served to targeted groups. The game is to deliver narrow information to narrow audiences.
For financial market information, there’s Yahoo Financial. For sports, there’s espn.com. Opinion gluttons can gorge out at Huffington Post or Free Republic. Lucrative classified ads, which funded generations of newspapers, are now at Craigs List.
What’s left? The orphans of the tale are in-depth and investigative journalism, classic grunt reporting of the eat-your-vegetables variety, stories to be set aside for careful attention. Those are the reports that transform what we think about our politics and our planet.
Through cable and the Internet, we are drowning in celebrity gossip, opinions, and tabloid crime. In-depth treatment of serious issues is hard to find.
So far, the newspaper has no effective successor. No new popular medium has emerged for careful analysis of public policies gone awry or corporate structures abusing public trust. Only major newspapers have had the resources to piece together complex facts to reveal the workings of government, corporate, and social institutions.
Because democracy depends on an informed citizenry, the waning of the newspaper is a watershed. “[T]o the press alone,” James Madison wrote in 1798, “checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
It’s no accident that the most incisive reports about the Iraq war and the Mideast have come in books, not in newspapers.
It’s also no accident that government secrecy has become both casual and audacious. The White House forgets to save eighteen months of e-mails. The CIA destroys interrogation tapes to avoid accountability for torture.
Smaller, ever ore superficial, the press is losing the battle with the forces of secrecy.
With the withering of newspapers, what becomes of the writers, the congenitally curious and easily outraged?
Writers, as Madison recognized, represent the seed corn of our democracy. Through their eyes and ears we see and hear what otherwise would be remote, hidden, or forgotten.
Next time, I’m going to think about some ways to deal with this impending tectonic shift in how information is delivered.


  1. John Curry on June 10, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    Dear David,
    I hope my comments at the Board meeting were conveyed properly.
    The point I wanted to make was that we Board members should read your recent blog entries and be open to the debate/fact that most information will be communicated through new media and there will be costs to that: the demise of the free press and the protections it has provided for our democracy.
    I’ll be interested in solutions/compromises you feel are vital as the media changes through the 21st century.
    Terrific blog–please keep writing; it’s on my monthly reading list and I’ve shared it with friends.
    My best, John

  2. Mateo on June 11, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    I wouldn’t confuse the reporting with the medium. The physical newspaper may die, but not the essence of reporting – the demand is too great.
    Newspapers need to find a way to better monetize online. Start by charging people $10/month to read their site. It worked for WSJ.com…
    Also, those of us in our 20s do occasionally purchase newspapers, though it usually accompanies Sunday brunch.

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