I remember years ago, when I worked at the old Cincinnati Post, the features department decided to do a story on the cartoon Beavis and Butthead. As I recall, we were several months behind the times on the story, which is one of those newspaper quiarks that has always killed me. I realize that it’s hard to be on the cutting edge of what’s hip and new and fresh and now -- Lord knows, I’m behind the times -- but those six-month late stories with headlines like “Facebook Is New Way To Keep Up With Friends!” or ledes like “Many people have said goodbye to writing checks and licking stamps and have started to pay their bills through ‘electronically!’” ... they make my side hurt.
Anyway, we at the Post were doing this Beavis and Butthead story, but of course we were a family paper* and as such would not print the word “Butthead.” So, when I picked up my post I found this outdated story about a cartoon that had already run its course, and the headline was “Beavis and Friend.”
That was one of those rare moments when I wondered about the future of newspapers.
*I just caught an interview with the late George Carlin where he was talking about how family newspapers would not put certain words in the paper, and he said: “How do they think the families got started in the first place?”
Now, of course, those thoughts about the future of newspaper are daily occurrences, sometimes hourly occurrences. Every single day, I read another story about why newspapers are dying, I talk to another friend who mentions a horror story at their shop, I hear about another newspaper that is on the brink of collapse. This blog is not really about that ... it’s supposed to be about ideas and opinions about where newspapers (in the larger sense -- news gathering organizations) are going.
But I will admit having one of those “Wow, the world has changed” moments yesterday. Not surprisingly, it revolved around my iPhone.
First, I will point out the obvious: When I was growing up, newspapers were everything. I don’t mean that as an editorial comment. I mean just about every single thing anyone wanted to know, they found in the newspaper. What’s the weather supposed to be? Look in the paper. What time is the movie playing? Look in the paper? Did Duane Kuiper get a hit last night? Look in the paper. If you wanted to know the score of the Vikings game, your horoscope, what was happening in the Middle East, if it was time to move the clocks back, lake levels for fishing, snow levels for skiing, what new music was coming out, who was having a yard sale in the neighborhood, where you could find a job, coupons for the supermarket, prices for cars, what was playing on television, what time the game started, what advice Abby was offering, what all those police sirens going off were about, what happened at the school board meeting, where to buy a used bicycle, what to expect at the new restaurant down the street, what was going on in Charlie Brown’s life, if the local college got the highly recruited running back on and on and on and on and on, forever, it was in your newspaper (or you damn well wanted to know why it wasn’t).
Put it this way: Whenever a local television station messed up something -- blacked out a game, changed its schedule at the last minute, replaced something with a local telethon, whatever -- newspapers would get hundreds of calls. Why? Nobody called the TV stations when their paper did not show up in the driveway. But that’s what newspapers were back then: They were supposed to be the answer to every question and the solution to every problem and the daily connection to the world. It was a nice place to be, and lots of people got very rich on newspapers ... almost none of them being reporters.
Well, I don’t need to explain how much that has changed in the new world. But I admit being somewhat overwhelmed when, in a bored moment, I was reviewing at the apps on my iPhone. I had never looked at them quite in this context ...
TWC: This is The Weather Channel App. It is free, and this is what it gives me: To-the-moment weather conditions, an hourly forecast for the next 12 hours, a 36-hour forecast for the next day and a half, a 10-day forecast to begin my planning, a weather map to look at the area and a radar so I can see for myself, video giving me local weather in real time and so on.
-- Now, as I go through each of these apps, I want you to think about this: How much BETTER is this than what newspapers used to give me? And how can newspapers compete with it? I think with the TWC App it’s clear: There’s no way to compete.
Now Playing: In this free app, the iPhone finds precisely where you are and gives you a list of movie theaters within a few miles, tells you what is playing at each movie and what time, gives you extensive reviews of the movie and allows you to watch the trailer, if you want.
At Bat 2009: This is not a free app, but basically it gives you up-to-the-minute boxcores and stats for each game, you can follow along pitch-by-pitch using MLB.com’s Gameday, listen to audio, and they will post videos of highlights just minutes after they happen.
i.TV: This is an interactive TV guide that works specifically with your television system, gives you times, reviews, information about each show, tells you what’s coming up, and it can be set so you can rate the shows. You can also get a DirecTV app if you have DirecTV and it gives you much of the same information, and also allows you to record Parks and Recreation from anywhere, like I just did.
Instapaper: This one’s ridiculous. You insert a “Read Later” button on your Internet browser. And anytime you run across a story you like but don’t have time to read, you click the button and, voila, it’s on your phone, easy to read next time you are bored anywhere -- the dentist office, the plane, the kitchen table, the bathroom, whatever. One of the great newspaper selling points has been that it’s the easiest thing in the world to read in the bathroom. Well, reading an iPhone is plenty easy too.
AroundMe: So this free app finds your location and then tells you where you can find the nearest: Banks, bars, coffee houses, gas stations, hospitals, hotels, movie theaters, pharmacies, pubs, restaurants, supermarkets ... and it gives you an address, a telephone number, shows you where it is on the map.
SportsTap: Every sport, latest news, box scores, schedules for all major sports teams, pro and college.
Craigsphone: Craigslist for the iPhone. That’s all. Anything you want to buy. Right there. I could buy Kansas City Fleetwood Mac Tickets for $125. I will not. But I could.
And, of course, there are countless news aggregators that would allow me to get news in about five million different ways (I do have a New York Times app, which is a bit slower than it should be ... I should figure out a way to create an iPhone app for my blog).
The larger point here is not to, once again, talk about how the whole concept of newspapers -- with the inevitable delay between printing and delivery, with the immutability of print, with the fixed costs -- struggles into day’s world. We all know that. We know it backward and forward.
No, the larger point is that as amazing as all the apps are that are listed above, none of them really provides much that is NEW other than technology. What I mean is the sports news you get, the around me information, the advanced TV guides, the movie app with reviews, even the weather reports, all of it is mostly just a repackaged, timely and utterly convenient version of what newspapers (and the Yellow Pages) gave Americans 30 years ago. In many ways, the game has changed entirely. But in other ways, the game has not changed at all. People still want much of the same information. We just want it faster, we want it constantly updated, we want it to be convenient, we want it to fit our lives
That’s why I cannot get away from the idea that people still want what newspapers have always given them. But now, the technology has allowed them to get that information and entertainment and daily help easily and from many different places and, seemingly, for free. I’ve got to believe that this new technology should allow smart newspaper executives to create a great product, a combination of print and digital and mobile, a newspaper spin-off that would feel essential to people. Anyway, I want to believe that.