Circulation of the printed news has faced a steady decline for the last decade, and it seems that every month another story breaks heralding the ‘death of the newspaper’. The most recent and perhaps poignant example is the sale of the Washington Post. For more than sixty years, the Post was owned by the same family, the Grahams. During that time the paper became a national institution in the US, famous for its coverage of such national scandals as Watergate as well as quality international reporting. The sale marks the end of the Graham era and leaves the future of the paper in considerable doubt.
The Post has been sold to Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, whose area of expertise is evidently in the electronic sale of consumer products rather than print media. The sale is indicative of a greater trend: tech-savvy men like Bezos are coming to rule the news industry, a business that will soon exist only in the optical fibres of the World Wide Web.
But what will a world of only online news look like? The website appears to be a far more urgent place than the paper, refreshing constantly and demanding a concision from its online writers unnecessary in print. While paper news allows for lengthy editorials, the nature of the Internet is not conducive to intensive reading, so if a news story cannot be summarized within140 characters, it can often become irrelevant.
The two page spreads the printed paper dedicated to the most complex issues of the day will die out. It is easy to fear that they will be replaced only by the myriad ‘top 10’ lists that characterize up-and-coming news websites such as ‘The Daily Beast’. One wonders if there is any place for a paper like the Washington Post in this new truncated world. It’s hard to imagine exactly how a Twitter update could have broken a story as complex the Watergate scandal.
Despite such critiques, however, online journalism has already witnessed and aptly reported on news pieces as significant, and perhaps even more so, as Watergate. Social networking sites and citizen reports through the blogosphere helped catalyse the Egyptian revolution, just as Washington Post reporters incited the downfall of the Nixon administration forty years prior. Enough has been written about what will be lost when the printed paper disappears – not enough has been written about what will be gained when electronic news rises to full prominence.
Online journalism represents a number of positive changes. Firstly, it creates a communal form of news impossible in the days of the printed paper. If a person were to read this article online and disagree with it, they could immediately voice their discontent (see: comments.) Many news websites make use of a ‘Most Read’ table of the most popular articles on the site, which ensures that readers have some power over what news is promoted. In a print, what is prominent is decided by a selected – and highly selective – few.
The online community brings writers down from their ivory towers onto the readers’ plane, making them more responsible to their audience and thereby ensuring the accuracy of their pieces.
Today, information travels faster than it ever has. Readers now have the opportunity to learn about major events as they happen, not days after. Online news gives the reader an enormous amount of choice – with the variety of news outlets, readers can choose articles written from almost any perspective, with any style, and by individuals of every nationality or political inclination.
There’s always a sense of anxiety when something as old as the newspaper reaches its end. The online world where news happens fast and fits in Twitter-sized white boxes can seem like a dystopian replacement of the familiar newspaper. Still, one cannot deny the overwhelming advantages of the online newspaper. My advice would be to relax, turn on your iPad, and embrace the brave new world.