US media expert Jeff Jarvis is predicting a massive shift in the American media market this year -- the death of print newspapers across the country. In an interview, he explains why he believes the future for serious journalism lies with Web sites like Twitter and Google News.
The closing in February of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado is the first in what is expected to be a wave of dying newspapers in the United States.
Jarvis: I checked my Twitter account and several sites online. But my wife still likes to read the print version of the New York Times, and I saw a story on our local paper's front page about a swine flu case in our hometown in New Jersey. That caught my attention, of course.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Isn't that an example of how important newspaper reporting still remains in the digital age? In the US, where the industry is faring even worse than in Europe?
Jarvis: I thought it was a scandal that we did not get more information on that swine flu case quickly online from our government. They are still not entirely used to the different rhythm of news. Today, people no longer rely solely on media outlets to receive their updates. The online generation thinks: If the news is that important, it will find me. My son who has never subscribed to a print newspaper, gets his news from Facebook, Twitter or from friends. He no longer treats traditional media as a magnet. People now get their messages by relying on other people they trust.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So what role, in your opinion, can newspapers still play?
Jarvis: They certainly no longer want to be in the paper business because that is dying out. The information business might be fine but there is no scarcity of information and news online. They could, however, be very effective in the collection business -- just find the best of the stuff that is out there online. They could also use their strong brands to compete in the business of elegant organization by creating information platforms or venturing into new markets. The New York Times has just started a new local program in New York enlisting my journalism students to collaborate online with them to report on their communities. That is the right approach. News outlets need to think distributed, they must collaborate with bloggers or social networking sites. On my blog, I have links to Google News or Google Maps. Innovative newspapers like the Guardian in Britain are equally open to cooperation. They make all their content available free online, they link to all sorts of sites, and in turn they receive more links in return.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But media outlets have hardly managed to transform these links into revenues.
Jarvis: First of all, tremendous efficiencies can be found in the online revolution. Publishers no longer have to pay for expensive presses or trucks. They can operate with a much smaller staff. Start ups can create news and entertain communities at a much smaller cost by forming the kind of networks I described. There are many other new options: A hyperlocal journalism approach, for instance. Or platforms with a whole of networks consisting of bloggers, next to foundations, next to publicly supported reporting, next to volunteers. But we will also investigate whether a paid content model can still work in the digital age.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can it? So far, it has seemed nearly impossible to charge for online content.
Jarvis: There is simply no scarcity of news online, so it is hard to return to old monopolies from the print era. In discussions, I often hear from media executives that readers should pay for content online. We need to get past such emotional debates. It is not about what should be done, it is about simple economics. When the New York Times stopped charging for content online, visits to its site increased by 40 percent. You will never get the ad rates you got in the past for print for those links. But media outlets can use them to generate other income. In Germany, Axel Springer is making a lot of money from merchandising online. BILD.de just sold 21,000 video cameras to readers who are then using them to take pictures that they send to the newsrooms. Also, news organizations could target smaller advertisers more aggressively for online ads.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some are calling for government subsidies for print outlets. Others suggest a fee for computer and mobile phone sales because without free media offerings, these devices would be a lot less attractive to consumers.
Jarvis: To me, such proposals seem like waiting for the new knight to bail out the industry. Get over it. It won't happen. Media outlets need to face the new economic competition. The same is true for the possibility of government intervention. How should a government decide what outlet deserves support and what does not? The idea is absurd.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You worked for a long time as a print journalist. Don't you fear that if we are forced to rely on a cacophonic network of Internet blogs and opinion pieces that there will be an erosion of journalistic standards? Some stories don't automatically find their way to the consumer -- they have to be unearthed by dogged journalists. That takes time and money.
Jarvis: At least in the US, we have had a scarcity of national opinionated voices for a long time. To have all these new perspectives online now is really a breath of fresh air. And let's be honest: What proportion of the overall resources of traditional media outlets was really devoted to investigative journalism? It was minuscule. A lot is happening online in that regard, too. Just look at Web sites like Talking Points Memo or the Huffington Post, which just received a generous endowment to do more investigative reporting. Editors at the Washington Post told me they do more investigative reporting than ever because they need to stand out online.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many are predicting the mass death of newspapers in America. When will the last print publication appear in the US?
Jarvis: I like print, but the economics don't add up. I believe this year will bring a true sea change: The one size fits all approach is coming to an end. More and more papers will either close or go solely online. Legendary investor Warren Buffett just said: I would never invest in newspapers. That is coming from a man who sits on the board of the Washington Post. Why should anyone throw money after a dying business model?
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz.
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