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Is Demise of Newspapers Preordained?

In an amazingly short amount of time, the discussion on the fall of the newspapers has moved away from possibility to inevitability. The consensus now seems to be that the actual print editions might vanish within the next decade, if not sooner.

Obituaries of the newspaper business are being widely written. While some contended that the slow reaction to the Internet challenge is leading to the papers' demise, the more fascinating analyses are suggesting that the doom was inevitable - no matter what the papers did.

Ezra Klein, writing in The American Prospect, simply says that "There's Nothing Anyone Can Do About It":

Most of the commentary on dying newspapers has been about making their news product better. But the salable product of newspapers was not news. It was local advertising and classifieds. Classifieds are now free and online advertising is a weak revenue stream. Meanwhile, the internet gives individuals have access to more news, not less.

Writing for Slate, Jack Shafer makes the argument that newspapers were actually innovators who jumped on the Internet before anyone realized its power and reach. Yet despite being early adopters, newspapers still failed:

Newspapers deserve bragging rights for having homesteaded the Web long before most government agencies and major corporations knew what a URL was. Given the industry's early tenancy, deep pockets, and history of paranoid experimentation with new communication forms, one would expect to find plenty in the way of innovations and spinoffs.

But that's not the case, and I think I know why: From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions. Despite being early arrivals, despite having spent millions on manpower and hardware, despite all the animations, links, videos, databases, and other software tricks found on their sites, every newspaper Web site is instantly identifiable as a newspaper Web site. By succeeding, they failed to invent the Web.

Shafer's conclusion is rather illuminating. Newspaper operators saw the opportunity to use the web as a potent weapon but failed to appreciate the extent of its agility. While they stubbornly held onto a soon-to-be obsolete business model, their customers already moved on.

Even now, most of the papers - including people who work in the newsroom and in corporate headquarters - are still clinging to the hopes that somehow the traditional paper will survive beyond the immediate future. But luckily for them, and with rich irony, the financial crisis is spurring the papers to action much earlier than if they were left to their own devices.

At the end, this abrupt kick in the derriere just might end up "saving" the newspaper business, as they belatedly dump the paper part of it.