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Magazine Editor: Let Newspapers Die

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Magazine Editor: Let Newspapers Die

Business

Magazine Editor: Let Newspapers Die

Magazine Editor: Let Newspapers Die

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Politicians and journalists are among those lamenting the financial troubles of newspapers. But Newsweek technology editor Daniel Lyons has little sympathy. Lyons believes many print news outlets — stricken by a drop in readers and advertisers — should be allowed to simply dwindle away, rather than be rescued by the government. He says such a reality signals a healthy, albeit painful, shift into an era transformed by digital news.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now another view. As he just noted, Senator Cardin's strategy has encountered much skepticism by the industry, his fellow senators, the public, even journalists themselves. One skeptic includes Newsweek technology editor Daniel Lyons. In a recent column, he argued that the government should just let struggling newspapers fail. And he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. DANIEL LYONS (Technology Editor, Newsweek): Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, you heard Senator Cardin, and I know you've heard the argument before. He says that struggling newspapers should have the option of becoming nonprofits. What's so terrible?

Mr. LYONS: I think it's one, a bad idea, and two, possibly a dangerous idea. I think it's a bad idea because the problems that newspapers are having are not really caused by the recession there. They are worsened by the recession, but they're caused by the fact that their business model doesn't work anymore. Their readers are leaving them, and more importantly their advertisers are leaving them. It's a dangerous idea, possibly, because I think it sets a bad precedent to have newspapers, which should be fiercely independent, now come to rely on a sort of a handout from friendly congresspeople or senators. I think that's a really, really…

MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Well, hold on a second, though. I mean, because you're saying, number one, the business model doesn't work, and number two, it's going to be a dangerous reliance on what questionable sources of - let's take those at a time. He's talking about changing the business model. That's thing one. He's talking about changing the business model. And number two: Is it really any more dangerous to have newspapers relying on, for example, on a large number of people in the public, as opposed to what they are doing now, which is large advertisers who can then pressure them to change coverage that they don't like?

Mr. LYONS: Well, I think it's bad enough that we're all in bed with advertisers. I think getting in bed with the government would be even worse. But on the business model side, I think this idea of chaining it to a nonprofit, if a company decides they want to go that way, is really just prolonging their agony. I mean, they're still yoked to a business model that doesn't work anymore. The one-liner used in my story was that I think it's sort of like having a bailout for black and white TV. We, you know, it's - yeah. Black and white TV was great.

I guess I come at this from a perspective of a technology guy, that I see from the Silicon Valley, what we're about - what the Internet has given us is a powerful, powerful - the best way we've ever had to share information, to deliver information. And we are just, just at the very, very beginning of what the Internet can do. But I think to focus energy on trying to save the old thing rather than focusing on just all the great things we can do with the new thing is really the issue here. And that's what I meant to convey in my article.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but we're going to come back to you after the break. Before we do, I wanted to focus on something that the senator said, which I don't think has been widely discussed when his proposal has been discussed, and that is that he made the argument that people don't really understand how news is gathered. They focus a lot on the distribution platform, which is paper…

Mr. LYONS: Right.

MARTIN: …as opposed to the Internet. But you don't focus on the fact that you still need people to go out and get the news, to create this knowledge, as it were, and that people who think that these aggregators - like Google, for example - don't really accommodate for the fact that they're still - somebody's to got pay these people to go sit at the school board meeting, you know, sit at the county council meeting and listen and tell everybody what's going on. And what do you say to that?

Mr. LYONS: Do you want me to answer that now, or after the break?

MARTIN: Yeah,

Mr. LYONS: Oh, now.

MARTIN: Start now.

Mr. LYONS: Okay.

MARTIN: And then we'll come back to you after the break if you have time.

Mr. LYONS: I agree completely, but I think it's not a matter of Google - you know, pure aggregators versus, you know, these hard-working journalists who work in print. For example, my feeling is that there are fantastic journalists out there in these print newspapers. Why not give them this new tool, which is much better than what they have? And I'm a journalist. I've worked my whole life in print, and in the last few years, I've shifted to the Internet. I can tell you that it is infinitely better in so many different ways.

So, a better example than Google is to look at Politico, which is a political Web site started by a bunch of guys, you know, heavy-hitter political reporters, shoe-leather reporters from the Wall Street - I mean, from the Washington Post, the New York Times, I mean, real rock star reporters who said, you know what? We're tired of working in print. We can see this is not working. Let's go, raise a little bit of money and start a Web site. And they are now beating everybody on political coverage.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, we need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue our conversation about the future of newspapers and the media at large in a moment. Right now, we're speaking with Dan Lyons. He's technology editor for Newsweek, and we're talking about his provocative idea to let newspapers die. Please stay with us at TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'll be back in a moment.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Washington, D.C. isn't just the capital of the nation. It's also the world capital of Go-Go. We'll talk with the man many consider the founding father of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, in a moment, and we remember Mercedes Sosa. That's a little later. But first, more of our conversation about the future of the media.

Earlier, we heard from Senator Ben Cardin - he's a Democrat from Maryland -about legislation he's introduced that he hopes would help save the newspaper industry by allowing newspapers, which so chose to convert themselves into nonprofits. Now we're talking with Newsweek technology editor Dan Lyons. He thinks that's a bad idea. He says the government should stay out of it and let struggling newspapers die. Thanks so much for staying with us.

Now, Dan, are you with us?

Mr. LYONS: Yes, hi. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You're multitasking there? What are you're doing? You're online…

Mr. LYONS: No, no I'm sitting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …you're doing something else while you're…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LYONS: Yeah. I'm on Twitter.

MARTIN: Yet another example of you are just staying for traditional media.

Mr. LYONS: No. I'm…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You're twittering our - you're tweeting our conversation as we speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LYONS: I work for mainstream media. I work for the most mainstream of mainstream media. I'm in Newsweek's print edition, right? I mean, that as mainstream as you get.

MARTIN: Well, it's to that point, though, you know, the online news sources you cite, the Web versions of major papers - Politico, the Huffington Post. They're not good sources for your local school board meeting, what's going on at the county council…

Mr. LYONS: Right.

MARTIN: …what's happening at the park this weekend. I mean, there are consortiums of journalists, for example, in different areas, who are very good at investigative stories, like why this particular developer is in bed with this particular county councilmember, for example. But…

Mr. LYONS: Right.

MARTIN: …they're not necessarily good at sitting there at the county council day after day, telling you what's going on with zoning, what's - which schools are about to close and why, that sort of thing. So where does that coverage come from?

Mr. LYONS: Well, I'll tell you something, but I agree with you. And I think that training for a young journalist - I did that. I worked in Massachusetts at a bunch of small papers, and you sit there night after night and it's boring. It's awful, and it's a grind. But you do it, right? You don't get paid very much, but it is great training. It's invaluable.

But I think where it's going to come from are these new hyperlocal blogs, where I just saw, I think, on Friday that NPR, in fact, has got some money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create a bunch of these hyperlocal sites. And I think that's an incredibly great idea and if I were a young kid, you know, coming out of journalism school - or forget journalism - just a young kid who wants to be a journalist, I would go start one of those, cover my town in-depth, you know, and build a business out of it. That's - the great thing about the Internet is we're focusing on trying to save these old newspapers, right. But what we're ignoring is there's this huge opportunity. If you're young person with a kind of - with energy and an entrepreneurial bent, you can build your own newspaper right now. It's a great, great time to be in media.

MARTIN: There's also the question of the digital divide. This - earlier this year, we spoke with veteran journalist Tim Giago. He recently started publication of the Native Sun News. That's a paper for Native-American communities. And, of course, he's been a pioneer in this area. He's started a couple of couple - this is his, like, third or fourth media venture so far.

One of the things that he pointed out, that a lot of his readers don't have Internet access, and we see that a number of people in different communities aren't online yet. What about them? Who serves them?

Mr. LYONS: Well, I think for - there will be print, right. I mean, print isn't going to go away. I mean, we're being - I've - probably being a little hyperbolic in saying let everybody die. Print isn't going to go away, anymore than radio went away when TV came along. We're having this conversation on radio, an ancient, you know, medium, but still very useful and valuable and great. And print will be the same way.

There will be places where print makes a lot of sense. It'll - I think they'll be smaller than they are now, but that's one thing. The other thing is that technology now is expensive, but the relentless march of technology is to become ever cheaper, ever cheaper, ever cheaper, such that it dries down and becomes more and more ubiquitous.

So, I think both of those things will converge to, either you'll still get your news in print because you just don't want the Internet or don't have the - or can't afford it. But right now, you know, when you think about what it costs to get a New York Times subscription in print, it costs more than what it would cost you to go out and buy a laptop computer and a year's worth of Internet access. So, it's just a matter of - yeah, I realize there are a lot of people who don't have computers.

MARTIN: It's just - it's a matter of time. It's a matter of time.

Mr. LYONS: I think it's an…

MARTIN: It's a matter of time before it becomes affordable. Dan, can I just…

Mr. LYONS: Yeah.

MARTIN: …grab one more question from you before I let you go?

Mr. Lyons: Sure. Yes, yes, yes. Sorry, yeah.

MARTIN: You've written it - and you've just said, look, you're being a little hyperbolic and that you don't want newspapers to die, and there's still some strong papers out there. What is the difference, in your view? What does a newspaper - what distinguishes the survivors from the ones that are falling by the wayside? Is it how they serve the market? Is it - what do you think the difference is?

Mr. LYONS: I think it's the ones who - yeah, who - the ones who, first of all, bet early on the Internet and got on there rather than doing nothing for 10 years have an advantage now. I think, also, the ones that are stronger about cutting back on their costs sharply rather than trying to, you know, do death by a thousand cuts. And from a business perspective this is, you know, a Schumpeter wave of destruction, like a wave of progress comes through and it wipes out the old. And the people who are in the old need to sort of adapt to that and cut very sharply. And also, in a way, I mean, reach out to your customers. Find out: What do you want? I mean, the thing we're not talking about here is that newspapers have become arrogant in a lot of ways.

They've become we are - you know, we tell you what the news is and you just get it from us. We don't really listen to you. You can write a letter to the editor, maybe we'll write it. They really need to reconnect with their readers and find out what do you want from us, and then try to deliver that the way you would with any product.

MARTIN: All right. Dan Lyons is a senior editor at Newsweek. He was kind enough to join us from Boston, where he's probably twittering away or tweeting away…

Mr. LYONS: I'm not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …as we speak. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LYONS: Thank you.

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