Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The next press

By Bill Kraus

Even though the business model for the traditional newspaper business no longer works, we are told we needn’t worry because the internet delivery system will soon be universal.

More and more newspapers are delivering more and more often and even exclusively via the internet, which is fine but not good enough.

The internet is like a library. It is a social center. It has all the knowledge in the world at hand. It has newspapers. It has everything a library has, and it has it on steroids.

The internet is a scholarly medium, newspapers are a sciolistic one.

Like a professor lecturing in a classroom, newspapers are a quaint, ancient way to transmit knowledge and information. Both are widely criticized. Neither has been surpassed. The other mass media are time and content limited. Only newspapers are designed in ways that inadvertently widen the readers’ worlds.

The jock who starts with the sports section can stumble over the story in the society section about Bill Veeck’s widow and her friend whose husband covered baseball when Veeck integrated the American League. The social butterfly is exposed to a story about the remarkable Mary Fisher who taught a Republican Convention about AIDS.

Any newspaper story and its ramifications have a chance to become part of the common discourse.

This is what newspapers do.

Many years ago when I was working in the governor's office I quickly learned that my day would be determined by what appeared on the front page and page five, the state page, of the Milwaukee Sentinel. The reason it had that power was because it was the common, almost universal communication medium. I remember touring the GM plant in Janesville and noticing that the break areas for the workers were littered with newspapers. So were the coffee shops.

Inefficient, random, often misguided and sometimes wrong but ever present everywhere.

The internet is an amazing resource. It is most valuable as an encyclopedic and segmented go-to place on anything and everything.

The print press had no such ambitions. It was, however, the public communication system. It was not universally beloved. It was, however, essential to the workings of our democracy.

The problem is that reviving the newspapers that were the reporters’ main venue and weapon doesn't seem imminent. Warren Buffett has concluded that at least in smaller towns and cities traditional newspapers will continue to work and even prosper. Will this be a route back to the kind of power and universality that “the press” once enjoyed? I wish.

Newspapers on the internet are, to me anyway, like newspapers in the library. Not universal enough. At least not yet. Maybe not ever.

The need for a common communication system--an “I read it in the paper” world--is pressing (no pun intended). If you’re not thinking about how to do this put it on your to-do list immediately.

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