A few days before Valentine’s Day, Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the very successful conglomerate controlled by Warren Buffet, announced that newspapers were dying. “Technological change is destroying the daily newspapers in America,” he said at the annual meeting of the Daily Journal, the publishing company where he is chairman. A month earlier, Berkshire Hathaway announced it would be selling off all of the newspapers it had bought over recent years, with industry stalwart Lee Enterprises picking up BH Media and the Buffalo Herald.
Pressing ink onto wood pulp and delivering it to people on a daily basis has not been a viable business model for two decades or more. But newspapers are not in that business anyway — they just never realized it.
The Forest, The Trees And A Fatal Mistake
Once a newspaper understands that delivering ink-stained wood pulp is not its occupation, it can begin the healing process.
The business of journalists is news and information, not running a print shop or making TV shows. Our colleagues, along with most of their audiences, confused their product with their medium. They thought they were in the printing, ink, wood pulp and delivery truck business. When a better printing press came along — and it was newspapers themselves that declared the internet to be a leap tantamount to Guttenberg’s invention of moveable type — they missed it. For centuries, news and information were transmitted by whatever means available, from paintings on cave walls to stone tablets, town cryers, smoke signals, telegraph and whatever other medium came along. Somehow, the 20th century declared that communications transport media had reached their zenith with newspapers and television.
The Medium Is The Bucket
Again, the word “medium” says it all. The literal Latin word for “middle,” medium is used in communications and the arts to mean a transport mechanism. It is not the content itself, merely the bucket that carries the content. The value in a newspaper is not ink and wood pulp, but the information it contains. The value in a whiskey decanter is not the glass it’s made of, but the whiskey. The value in a Picasso is neither the canvas nor the pigment.
The Original Social Network
Once upon a time, if someone wanted to know who was getting married, who died or who was born, who was selling their house, having a sale or hiring, they would find that information in local communications media. The Gazeta de la Novitá in Venice began publication around 1620, and for the modest price of one gazzetta (a small copper coin named after a magpie) a Venetian could find news of community interest and news from diverse parts of the world. Four hundred years later, one would think the publishing industry would have evolved.
But There Is Good News
Newspapers and local television stations can have it all back. All of it. The revenue, the advertisers, relevance — all of it. But first, newspapers, television stations and, soon, cable networks need to stop confusing their product with their medium. Then they need to stop trying to be the bucket, too. Small town media know all too well how expensive it is to build and maintain sophisticated digital platforms. In the expanding “American news desert,” low-tech print media are going bankrupt (as Charles Munger put it) because of a technological change. While their traditional transport medium has become obsolete, the current preferred transport medium is, in fact, working against them. Even their primary sources for national and world news compete with local media online.
Once upon a time, people learned about the world from the point of view of their home town. The news of the day was about things occurring within a few miles of home, and global events seemed distant. Electronic media closed that gap to such an extent that now it seems the telescope has been turned around. Rather than viewing the vast, impersonal everything from the point of view of one’s self and one’s community, we view our individual lives and those of our loved ones and friends forced through the lenses of the vast, impersonal everything. It’s our own communities that seem distant.
People consume media on ubiquitous media platforms, accessed via vast global telecommunications carrier networks. There is no perception of distance on global networks. There is no “here” there. A site in France is no different than one in Macedonia or Billings, Montana. To make matters worse, there is no perception of scale either. A big corporation, a small one or even a fake one can all look alike on a digital appliance. It’s all trees; the forest is invisible.
If you publish a small-town newspaper — or a newspaper of any size — you look similar to any other site serving media content. The advantage of local media is presence. No ubiquitous platform lives in the same community as local merchants and citizens.
Newspapers must shed their paper shell and return to their position as the media and information nexus for their individual communities. They can do this by focusing on serving their communities and what makes each a unique and individual place, distinct from but linked with other communities around the world.
With just a little bit of help, those dying newspapers can become the most powerful community-centric news and information-based social network on earth. We just have to turn the telescope back around.