What happens when a newspaper is just another digital voice?

The fact that print is declining as a medium for journalism, and that newspapers are going to have to deal with that in a variety of ways, was brought home with a thud recently when Advance Publications and Postmedia announced they would no longer print some of their papers on certain days, in order to save money. In the case of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the loss of the printed version of the paper three days a week has been criticized as almost a dereliction of public duty by the paper’s owner — as though something digital doesn’t have as much force as the printed version. As more newspapers are forced to make similar decisions, what impact will that have on their ability to serve a public purpose as an information source about the community?
New York Times writer David Carr was one of the first to make this connection explicit in his story on the Times-Picayune cuts — a piece that was almost a eulogy for the newspaper and its relationship with the city of New Orleans, and in particular the bonds that were forged during the disastrous floods of 2005 (when the paper published only an online version). After describing how David Simon, creator of the TV shows The Wire and Treme, was worried about the loss of the watchdog role that a daily newspaper plays in a city with political corruption, Carr said:

The constancy of a daily paper — in the rack at the convenience store on Frenchman Street or on the tables of the coffeehouse on Maple Street — is a reminder to a city that someone is out there watching… You have to wonder whether it will still have the same impact when it doesn’t land day after day on doorsteps all over the city.

Does being digital rob a newspaper of some of its power?

In a discussion with Carr and others on Twitter after his story appeared, I argued that there is no reason (theoretically at least) why a digital-only organization couldn’t be just as much of a watchdog, and serve the community as well or better than a printed newspaper. Carr noted that many New Orleans residents don’t have internet access, and I countered that many residents likely don’t subscribe to the newspaper either — but he maintained there is a value to papers that are handed around or read in coffee shops that the web can’t duplicate.

Some of this is tied to the brand that a newspaper has, and the established history of covering a community. What happens to that when it stops printing on certain days, or shuts down altogether? One thing that can happen — especially if cost cutting extends to staff who would have done investigative or enterprise stories — is that a paper can lose a lot of goodwill, which is difficult to regain. But it raises the question: what is the purpose of a newspaper, to make money or to serve a public purpose in society? And can a digital paper do both?
Advance Publications, owned by the Newhouse family, shut down the printed newspaper in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2009 and went with a digital-only version — and according to some, it has lost a lot of the strength it used to have as a community voice. Charles Eisendrath of the University of Michigan told the New York Times that he eventually stopped subscribing to the website. “Is AnnArbor.com discussed much in Ann Arbor? No. Is it an authority? No,” he said. That kind of decline for a brand is likely to translate into a loss of advertising as well, which then becomes a slippery slope of cuts leading to more cuts.

Online can’t be seen as just a cost-cutting move

Warren Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway billionaire who just snapped up 63 newspapers from Media General for $142 million — and who has expressed publicly his commitment to the kind of local journalism that community dailies engage in — said in a recent interview that he wasn’t a fan of only printing on certain days, because he believes that might break some of the bond that consumers have with their newspapers (although Clay Shirky predicts Buffett himself will likely have to do the same thing soon). As Buffett put it to Howard Kurtz:

This three-day-a-week stuff really kills you. You want people who look at you every day…Once people get used to online, I don’t think they come back.

That’s the problem in a nutshell: once your newspaper has been stripped of the magic of print — the same magic that makes you far more appealing to advertisers than the amount of time spent with your medium would seem to indicate — you become just another digital voice among thousands or even millions of other voices. Then you are no different from the Huffington Post, or Buzzfeed, or a Twitter-driven news source such as News.me or Prismatic. In fact, you could actually be seen as worse in some ways, because you are a single voice.
What is the solution to this problem? If, as newspaper consultant and digital-media veteran Dan Conover said recently, newspapers have to confront the problem of costs head-on — and stop printing if that is the only avenue that will work — then they must make both the print experience and the digital-only version as unique as possible, and focus on the elements that make those two different mediums powerful in their own right. Simply hoping that everyone will implement paywalls and return the information age to the days of print-based scarcity, as David Simon seems to be recommending, is not a long-term solution.
The biggest issue for publishers like Advance is that doing this properly costs money, and if cost-cutting is their primary goal then investing in digital journalism may not seem like something worth doing. But the media companies that don’t do so will become just another voice in the crowd — and possibly not a very important one.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Ed Kohler and George Kelly