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The Future of Newspapers

March 30th, 2009 by Chris Strauber

The economic downturn seems to be accelerating conversations about the future of the newspaper business. Recent announcements that the Christian Science Monitor and Seattle Post-Intelligencer would no longer produce print editions, but would instead be online-only publications have accompanied news that other newspapers will simply close. The Rocky Mountain News simply ceased publication, as have many smaller newspapers across the country.

The implications of this have spawned a series of conversations on the web. Here’s a small sampling of my favorite additions to the standard theme, which tends to run: “The death of newspapers will be the death of an important part of our democracy and civilization.”

Clay Shirky argues quite forcefully in Thinking The Unthinkable that a business based on the expectation that the means of publishing and distribution are expensive and scarce cannot survive when, with the Internet, neither of those things is true. He suggests distinguishing between journalism, which is essential, and newspapers, which are merely one means to that end.

Caveat Lector points out that libraries face similar questions as they manage a transition to a future which is already here–and points to Tom Scheinfeldt at Found History, who suggests that conversations among humanists about whether technology is relevant to teaching and research are disturbingly similar to a divide between pragmatists and realists Shirky describes.

Newspapers are an important part of our common culture, but from the perspective of a library which manages dozens of formats, I am less concerned about the form information takes than I am about the content. My last library had music recorded on wax cylinders. The National Archives has a working version of the machine used to record the Nixon tapes. Every library in the country has VHS tapes which increasingly few patrons have the equipment to handle. Formats change. Newspapers have a long history, but ultimately they are just a way of displaying and distributing a particular kind of information. Hang on, we’ll all work this out together.

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