Thursday, March 19, 2009

Technology-driven Evolutionary Change and the Future of American Newspapers, Part II

Yes, the progressive disappearance of the print newspaper feels like a distinct shock, like something important to life has been taken away. Yet, over the past century there have been other such disappearances arising out of evolutionary advancements in technology. Some industries have had to either adapt to the changes or risk going out of business.

Even in my own lifetime I have seen several such technology-driven disappearances. When I was young, coal (usually stoker -sized lumps) dominated the home heating fuel options. True, it was cheap and did keep the house warm during the winter. However, a coal furnace was an attention hog, since the mechanical device that kept the firebox supplied with fresh coal (on demand), called a stoker, had to be refilled with coal on a regular basis. Then, the burning of coal produced unending supplies of unburned chunks of inorganic matter called clinkers that had to be pulled out of the firebox with a long-handled grabber and parked in a metal container to cool off so they could be safely disposed of somewhere. Over the last 45 years or so coal has increasingly given way to cleaner and more convenient fuel sources, such as heating oil and natural gas or propane (for people living in the country). Now, more and more houses and apartments use electricity to stay warm in the winter. A big benefit from this change is that cities really are cleaner today than they were 50 years ago.

This Sony laptop this post is being composed on represents several evolutionary changes I have lived through. In high school I took a typing course. For the first three quarters of the school year we learned how to type exclusively on manual typewriters. Only in the last quarter of the year were we allowed to use electric (not electronic) typewriters. In that era, the typist was responsible for returning the platen to the left margin on the paper at the end of each line.

In the early 1970's, while enrolled full-time at the local junior college I took a semester-long course in the then state of the art Fortran IV programming language. This was a widely used means of telling a computer what the programmer wanted it to do. Each program line of code was to be fed into the computer on a separate Hollerith card that had a pattern of punched holes in the card that varied depending on the text I typed onto the top of the card. The first computer I successfully programmed was an NCR Century 50 that effectively filled a small room and had 16k of hard-wired ferrite core memory.

Fast forward to today. I am composing this post at home, kicked back in my easy chair, my almost eight year old laptop sitting on my stomach. Despite its age, its RAM is 16,000 times larger than the room-sized Century 50. As it is a computer it does have a keyboard, like a typewriter. However, it does not have a round platen that has to be fussed with. Instead, lines of type appear on the monitor as the characters are typed in. At the end of each line, Word Perfect takes care of returning the insertion point to the start of the next line. It also automatically capitalizes the first letter of each sentence.

At one time, Smith Corona produced one of the best typewriter lines on the market. Is Smith Corona still in business? I actually don’t know. Indeed, does any one know anyone who still owns a typewriter?

Even US Libraries have undergone a truly evolutionary change, even here in Idaho. For well over a century, libraries organized their collection according to the rules of either the Dewey Decimal or the Library of Congress Cataloging System. (Public Libraries generally use the former because it is easier to explain to patrons. Academic Libraries generally use the latter because it is much more precise. Personally, I much prefer the latter.) Then they provided large chests of file drawers full of catalog cards so the Patrons could find the books they were looking for.

More and more libraries are retiring the card catalogs. They have been replaced by computer terminals where a patron keyboards in to the software what it is they are looking for, and the software, in a sense, consults its own card catalog, then provides the information sought (or not.) Indeed, with a slowly growing number of libraries, it is now possible for Patrons to do their “card catalog” research from home. What foes this change portend for the manufacturers of blank catalogue cards? Well, given the seemingly sharp drop off in demand, they will find it necessary to find new products to manufacture, or go out of business.

Newspapers are in the same position. Old technologies and ways of doing things don’t work any more. If they want to survive, adapting to the changing way the world now communicates will have to become a way of life. Personally, I see the future newspaper existing only on line, with no print editions appearing anywhere. Is this a bad thing? Far from it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are Print Newspapers Breathing Their Last? (Technology-driven Evolutionary Change and the Future of American Newspapers, Part I)

I have always enjoyed reading the newspaper in its traditional mode of delivery: printed on newsprint. Some of this comes from my innate curiosity about the world around me. Most of it, however, stems from the years that my late father worked as a combination photographer and journalist for several print newspapers.

Now it is beginning to look like the traditional print newspaper is moving toward extinction in the United States. Here in Idaho’s Magic Valley (a seven county, broad valley just north of Nevada) in the past year five County seats last their weekly newspaper and another lost its six day a week paper when they were merged into the region’s largest daily paper. Reason? Corporate cost cutting. Thus six communities lost a central part of their identity.

Nationally, already the owners of three of the nation’s largest daily papers – the Philadelphia Enquirer, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times have filed for bankruptcy protection. Off and on for months I have seen rumors floating around cyberspace that the New York Times is considering either sharply reducing the size of its print editions, or eliminating them completely.

Earlier this year the owner of the Denver Rocky Mountain News shut it down completely. Since the 19th Century, Denver residents had been kept informed of events by two competing newspapers. Now, only the Denver Post remains.

This week brings word that the Seattle Post-Intelligencier has dropped its print editions while keeping its Internet edition active. At the same time, the San Francisco Chronicle reportedly will be shut down within a month if a buyer cannot be found (it sounds like no rescuer is on the horizon.) This week brings still other news that I see as sad.

In 1881, the legendary, yet very real, shootout at the OK Corral occurred in the small frontier Arizona town called Tombstone. A newspaper from nearby Tucson, the Arizona Citizen reported on the event in beautiful prose. As all of southeast Arizona grew into the modern era, and as Tucson grew into a major metropolitan area, the paper grew with it even as it chronicled the growth. In 1976 the paper was sold to the Gannett Corporation, which renamed it the Tucson Citizen.

As has happened in other cities where Gannett owns local papers, over time, the paper’s quality declined, driving subscribers away. With any newspaper (or any other periodical, for that matter) when the number of subscribers falls, the rates the paper can charge advertisers decline as well. This downward spiral hit Tucson’s first newspaper as well. So, this Saturday, March 21, after surviving for 139 years, the paper will publish its final, farewell edition.

In Idaho’s Capitol city of Boise, the state’s largest newspaper, the Idaho Daily Statesman is also struggling with remaining profitable. On top of shrinking the physical page size of the print edition and outsourcing the printing of its editions to a newspaper in a nearby city, thereby eliminating 40 plus production jobs, today its website announced still more changes. On April 3, 25 additional employees will be laid off, cutting its total workforce by another 10%. For all remaining employees, pay cuts of 3% to 10% (determined by broad wage bracket) will go into effect.

This upheaval in the newspaper industry leads to one main question: what’s going on?

I see these changes as the first stirrings of a major evolutionary change in the overall news industry. In the past, newspapers survived the development of local radio news that offered the advantage of being able to cover important news events as they happened. Later they survived the development of television news that could both report on “breaking” news and show viewers what was happening.

Now, the Internet is emerging as an increasingly important news dissemination medium. With the Internet, it is possible for people worldwide (who are paying attention) to learn of major news events potentially within seconds of when they happen. Plus, the Internet offers the added advantage of being able to hyperlink related content together as it develops. I see this ease of rapid updating and ease of tying together related information as combining with the increasing availability of free WiFi zones to present traditional newspapers with a challenge they are structurally incapable of responding to.

In time – conceivably as little as ten years, certainly by the mid 21st Century – I see traditional print newspapers largely to completely fading into history, replaced by on-line papers and non-traditional news web sites. Many older adults will struggle with accepting this inevitable change, however, from an environmental perspective, this is a very positive change. How?

As the number of print newspapers drops, the demand for newsprint proportionally declines. Manufacturers, in response, reduce the amount they produce to keep their finished goods inventory value under control. As they reduce production, they reduce their emission of a variety of air and water pollutants, thus helping clean up the environment. Reduced production also reduces carbon oxide emissions into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the reduction in the human impact on global warming. In addition, reducing paper production allows the trees being grown by the paper companies to remain planted in the ground possibly years longer, thereby increasing the volume of carbon dioxide the planet’s biosphere can absorb throughout the growing season.

A similar chain of reasoning is easily developed regarding the printing inks that are used to produce newspapers. Again, reducing the demand for web-offset printing inks reduces pollution and the industry’s carbon footprint, thereby benefitting the environment.

In Part II of this post, I will reflect on the technology advancement-driven changes I have witnessed with my own eyes.

Monday, March 2, 2009

In Remembrance: Paul Harvey, Broadcasting Legend

Sometime on Saturday, February 28, 2009, American broadcasting legend Paul Harvey passed away at the age of 90, surrounded by family, in a hospital near Phoenix, Arizona. Cause of death has not been released.

In one respect, Paul Harvey’s daily news and commentary broadcasts formed the pulse of my life growing up. Everyone in my family avidly listened to him and it was easy to see why. He brought an easy-going approach to the text he was reading that inspired confidence (and loyalty.) Whether you agreed with his opinions or not did not matter; the manner in which he presented them always underscored the sense in his viewpoint.

I still remember his long-running program feature that honored the longest-lasting marriage that was celebrating an anniversary that day. Often these were couples who had been married for sixty to seventy years or more. Most of the time, these couples lived either on the family farm that had been in the family for generations, or in small farming towns.

At times, one got the impression that the state of Nebraska had a monopoly on very long-lasting marriages. So listeners began writing in to him, asking if this was the case, and if, so, could anyone explain it? Sure enough someone responded from Nebraska, and explained it in this manner. Thousands of people hold season tickets to University of Nebraska Cornhuskers Football games year after year. Some even indicate in their wills who is to receive the tickets after they pass on. Well, since the same people sit in the same seats every year, of course couples are going to stay married. After all, if they got a divorce, at the games, they would be stuck sitting next to each other, perhaps for a good many years.

That explanation may have some seeds of truth to it. However, I feel it is the strong presence of the family farm in the state that encourages long marriages. On the traditional family farm, when something broke, or quit working like it should, the family fixed it, got it working again, and moved on to the next task at hand. Thus, when a farm family marriage encountered a rough patch, the couple knew they were expected to fix it. So they did.

In the area of general news reporting and features presentation, I see radio as having only three true legends who deserved the tag of “great.” Lowell Thomas described far away, exotic places so accurately and vividly that it was easy to see each place come to life in one’s mind was the first. Edward R. Murrow, with his well-modulated bass voice reporting on World War II (or whatever) in the same calm, somewhat deadpan delivery, was the second. Paul Harvey was the third. Now all three have passed from the scene. Their kind will never be heard from again.

Mr. Harvey impressed me as a rare broadcaster, in the sense that, whether I agreed with the political stance he was taking or not, I always respected the position he was taking. On issues or positions he felt strongly about, he always spoke from the heart with immense sincerity. In 1974, during the depths of the Watergate scandal that took down President Nixon, I switched my party loyalty from the Republican to the Democratic party. Even after my switch, his unwavering support of, and friendship with, many Republican office holders never bothered me.

In 1976 he began his daily five minute (or so) “The Rest of the Story” features that brought to light some notable event or historical fact about some well-known person. In his trademark style, each program proceeded with a tightly written, chronological narrative that withheld the identity of the person to whom the piece was about until the end of the account. He always closed each installment with “And now you know . . . the rest of the story.”

With his passing, yet another major chunk of my past fades from the scene. Inside I do feel a bit of a hole right now for he was a link to my happiest memories. Indeed, upon reading of his death, first at and then later at the Tucson Arizona Star website, I found the immortal words of English cleric and poet John Donne rising back into my awareness. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . .any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Tonight, all who grew up hearing his broadcasts are at least a little bit diminished.

My thoughts go out to his family and friends. May they know the peace, comfort and support they need in their time of loss.