Newspapers and the internet

By Mischa Popoff on August 6, 2009

My great-granddad bought the first radio in his neighbourhood back on the farm in Saskatchewan. Far from being a hayseed, he was literate and subscribed to many newspapers and magazines. He spent the equivalent of $10,000 in today’s money to own the best radio money could buy, about a quarter of the value of a new small tractor. It had a shortwave band on which he could listen to Radio Moscow in the evenings.

The neighbours said, “That’s it! The newspapers’ days are numbered.” Of course, they were wrong. Even when radios came down to the price of a wood stove, then later to the price of a good bottle of vodka, the radio never replaced the newspaper. And neither did TV when it made its way into every North American home.

newspapersbw.jpgThe newspaper is over 400 years old and has survived the onslaught of technology and totalitarian tyrants alike. And now the internet is taking a swing. But if the internet never ruined radio or TV − both infants compared to printed news − why does anyone think it will kill the newspaper?

You may have heard, they’re also predicting the end of the book. Have you tried reading a book in electronic form? It’s about as fulfilling as a televised church sermon. The only print medium that the internet slew is the pornographic magazine, and that’s because it’s a completely graphic-based medium. Print media that contain actual ideas can’t possibly succumb to the mere pervasiveness or immediacy of the internet.

So, where did the ideas go? Of course there are the many excellent pieces which the good editors and journalists at this newspaper write, but perhaps there’s not enough such excellence. It’s a longstanding, honourable and fundamental British tradition to engage society in debate. Could it be that newspapers are simply failing to engage a large portion of thinking society?

Advertisers want eyeballs on the page so their ads will be noticed. When people quit thinking they quit reading, and advertising revenues dry up. Sure, a few advertisers are ideological and only want to advertise in a newspaper that reflects their side of an issue. But the overwhelming majority of business people simply want readership, which translates into customers, and the best way to achieve readership is by presenting challenging ideas.

The editors of this newspaper can hold their heads up high both for the editorials they write, and for some of the columnists they run. But Central Canadian and flagrantly Liberal viewpoints should be balanced with more Western Canadian, commonsense views. Dare I suggest more small “c” conservative viewpoints? The label has become a badge of dishonour in many media circles. But anyone with business acumen should ask whether this rejection of conservatism has had something to do with declining revenues at so many newspapers.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the views being published in this country. I disagree with many of them, but they’re all perfectly valid from both a democratic and a journalistic perspective. But, simple validity isn’t enough to attract readership. Debate will; and debate is not only central to democracy, it usually makes for interesting reading as well.

When it comes to selling advertising, a healthy juxtaposition of left and right-wing ideas is a winning formula. Indeed, that’s why the National Post is holding its own while The Globe and Mail is floundering.

Blaming the internet for diminishing revenues in the newspaper industry is like blaming the space shuttle for bankrupting airlines. They’re not even operating in the same airspace.


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