Somehow I can’t yet wrap my heart around curling up in front of the fireplace with a Kindle. Yet, late last week, Amazon announced to shareholders that “Kindle sales have exceeded our most optimistic expectations.”
That’s fabulous news for Amazon, but it could be devastating for book stores, just as the digital delivery of movies may toll the bell for Blockbuster. Movie theaters are dancing as fast as they can to find a sustainable formula as digital delivery increases and home monitors become more theater-like. But for me, going to the movies hasn’t been the same for decades. It’s only the small “art” theaters that retain any of the experience of movie-going that triggers any nostalgia.
Yes, I can do without movie theaters. But the rapid drive towards digitalization is threatening something even closer to my heart that the printed book: the newspaper. While I live in Pennsylvania now, I still consider myself a citizen of that quintessential newspaper town, New York. One of its rites of passage is learning how to fold the New York Times in a crowded subway so that you can turn the pages without sticking your arm in front of your neighbors face. I spent memorable days during summer breaks as a guest of the Columbia School of Journalism, listening to newspaper reporters talk about their craft. The lessons I learned there gave me an edge in my professional life, when I frequently needed to discuss issues critical to my clients with reporters and editorial boards.
Now the New York Times is struggling and, some have said, dying. The metropolitan daily nearest to me—the Philadelphia Inquirer—has filed for bankruptcy protection. Others have shuttered this year, and most are shuddering, wondering what’s next for them. If you haven’t read “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” the essay by Internet guru Clay Shirky, you should. It’s a very readable and, in its own way, moving analysis of why newspapers are fading away. To really delve into the subject, I also recommend Professor Jay Rosen’s Flying Seminar in the Future of News.
Perhaps their most important observation is that newspapers are not synonymous with the news any more than theaters are synonymous with movies, or books with bookstores. There is a fundamental difference between product and distribution—as the music industry has demonstrated. It may be too late to save most newspapers, because the economics no longer make sense. But it is not at all too late to preserve what’s really important—the collection and availability of news itself.
On April 24, 1704, John Campbell began the first regularly published newspaper in British America. 305 years later to the day, we can see a different, but equally historic, milestone on the horizon: the last publication of a printed American newspaper. But though the form may change, Shirky, Rosen, and others are confident that journalism will continue to thrive in—and benefit—future generations. I hope I can learn to accept whatever new form it takes—as the residents of Colonial Boston eventually embraced the broadsheet’s essential contributions to public discourse.