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The Montréal Review, May 2009


In May, Vanity Fair Magazine published a detailed analysis of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger's troubles with the future of his inheritance The New York Times (The Inheritance, May, 2009). Mark Bowden, author of the article, expressed doubts about Sulzberger's belief that traditional journalism (or "quality of content") really "sells" and will withstand the pressure of Internet.

Today, The New York Times has the most successful newspaper Web site in the United States and is enjoying a world reputation and readership. According to Nielsen it has more than 20 million unique visitors a month, but still does not have enough revenue from its online content. The New York Times has financial problems. In the 1990s, its shares were going for more than $50, now they are below $4, and as Bowden says, "Times Company stock is officially classified as junk." "The Internet has disaggregated the news. It eliminates the middleman-that is, it eliminates editors" says Bowden "The Internet replaces editors with an algorithm. Google is a search engine. It makes no value judgment about information unless you instruct it to. When an editor is replaced by an algorithm, all information is equal."

An article published last week in the British Economist ("Tossed by a gale") notes, "The inherent benefit of spreading stories around helps explain why some established news outfits are coming to resemble aggregators. The Associated Press has a popular iPhone application which combines national stories with local ones from 1,100 partner news outlets. News Corporation set up a website, Fox Nation, which mixes news stories with right-wing commentary. It is intended to become a conservative Huffington Post. Indeed, one of the great successes in both British and American news publishing is the Week, in effect an aggregator that is printed on paper."

But does this mean that the machines will replace the humans? And the edited by humans news content will disappear? Probably it won't. Internet is not just technology, it is something more - a soucre of communication. Technology cannot replace human communication despite the perfection of its algorithms. Technology is and will be only a valuable assistant. This principle was not fully grasped by web engineers, nor by publishers and the result, at least until now, very often is swaying between two extremities - from completely "aggregated" news to "editorial" elitism. There is even a kind of professional contempt between engineers (aggregator creators) and editors (content creators). The fact that Google is not interested in investments in traditional news publishing, and the opinion of Sulzberger, quoted by Bowden, that he does not care for "the platform," but for the quality of content, means a lot. Yet we cannot miss another fact that Sulzberger uses extensively the "digital platform" and that Google's Chief Executive Eric Schmidt considers the help to traditional publishers as "a moral imperative." (Eric Schmidt said this at an event hosted in San Francisco by Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications.) Or in other words - two solitudes, one boat, and common interest.

Bowden does not give solutions to newspapers' digital troubles and turbulences; in "The Inheritance" he just registers the facts - the most influential newspaper in the world, The News York Times, does not receive enough revenue from its online edition and his prominent owner is in deep trouble.

In its last issue, Economist (May 14 th , 2009) also noted (see "The rebirth of news") that the newspapers are in danger. Starting with an already trite, highly exploited example, the lost of paper edition of The San Francisco Chronicle, Economist asked the familiar question: "Will San Francisco lose its daily newspaper?" And choose to answer quoting Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco's mayor,"People under 30 won't even notice."

The magazine reminded us that in Britain about 70 local papers have shut down since the beginning of 2008, and the trend was spreading not only through Anglo-Saxon world, but in every place in the world where Internet is present and widely used.

Yet the picture that Economist painted is not completely grim. "Does that matter?" - asked the magazine. "Technological change has destroyed all sorts of once-popular products, from the handloom to the Walkman, and the world has mostly been better for it."

But the news is not just a product, it is a part of democracy, and without serious and strong journalism real democracy is impossible to exists. According to Economist news business suffers from the effects of a revolutionary transition from paper platform to digital one and because of the characteristics of the latter the traditional package of content--politics, sport, Dow Jones quotes, classifieds ads, weather and so forth--is dissapearing. The newspaper publishers, not used with the new digital realities, are struggling to find the right balance between types of content, profit and distribution.

In the last year, the newspapers' hopes for introduction of form of payment for Internet content has been revived, to some extent because of the success of Murdoch's digital Wall Street Journal and also because of the intense pressure coming from the publishing circles for a change in the existing business models. Economist predicted the appearance of some form of mixed paid and free content in future and gave as an example the Financial Times which demands registration from every reader who wishes to view more than three articles per month and payment if one wishes to read more than ten pieces. "About 1 million people are registered of whom 109,000 pay," noted the magazine.

The Economist concluded: "But the only certainty about the future of news is that it will be different from the past. It will no longer be dominated by a few big titles whose front pages determine the story of the day. Public opinion will, rather, be shaped by thousands of different voices, with as many different focuses and points of view. As a result, people will have less in common to chat about around the water-cooler. Those who are not interested in political or economic news will be less likely to come across it; but those who are will be better equipped to hold their rulers to account. Which is, after all, what society needs news for."



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