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Publications dwindle as newspapers redirect resources

The slap of a freshly delivered newspaper onto the driveway is a cliché for the beginning of a new day. Everything is possible at that moment. The birds are singing. The sun is cresting the horizon. And the contents of the printed package offer information, analysis and entertainment.

Last week in New Orleans, the publishers of the Times-Picayune announced they would be spoiling that bit of Americana. The paper was cutting a third of its staff and producing an actual broadsheet (such as one is these days) only three times a week. The rest of the Bayou news would be available on the Web.

It was a sad day, to be sure, for those of us Luddites who prefer to get our morning wakeup call from ink and paper, rather than a screen. Other papers (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News among them) have folded completely over the past several years, so the fact that the Times-Picayune will appear on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays in the foreseeable future provides some consolation. Some.

This is not an elegy for the rotting newspaper industry, as much as I hold it dear. Ad sales of the New Orleans publication have shrunk to the point where Monday and Tuesday issues are practically devoid of the promotional come-ons. From a business standpoint, it makes little sense to rely entirely on circulation to provide revenues. The Times-Picayune ownership is trying to keep the product alive at a time when newspapers are becoming quaint reminders of what once was, not must-have delivery systems of current events.

We have been hearing for a decade that the newspaper is destined for history’s ash heap, and the growth and increasing popularity of other ways to disseminate information have proven that the idea of a once-daily glimpse into the fast-moving world is insufficient. In many ways, newspaper publishers’ decisions to straddle the line between a hard copy and web version of their product is causing a deterioration in the quality of each.

By continuing to devote considerable resources to the paper product, companies are hurting their web sites, which in most cases lag behind Web-only competitors in terms of quality and immediacy. And by trying to provide instant content on the Internet, publishers are torpedoing their paper versions, which often include little that hasn’t already been available – often for almost a day – online. Imagine if any other business were undercutting itself by providing its product (for free, in most cases) ahead of time. It wouldn’t last a month.

Last week, USA Today announced that it was recasting its sports group into a “multi-platform sports organization”, with a goal of breaking news more frequently and providing customers with information 24/7. Publisher Larry Kramer said the company could no longer operate with “a print-first mentality”. It must be quicker, more nimble and certainly more capable of delivering content in the moment. In other words, it must do all the things a newspaper doesn’t.

These aren’t good times for we newspaper lovers. The end is clearly near. Those who covet the newspaper culture have met the Times-Picayune’s decision with sufficient wailing and gnashing of teeth. But this day was inevitable. So will be the day – gasp! – when the New York Times becomes solely an online product. That’s the reality of it, and though we may mourn a bygone era, when we sat with our coffee and Happy O’s and read the boxscores, the fact is that the product is outdated by the time it hits the blacktop. It used to be that the 11 o’clock news usurped the paper, but a half-hour of TV couldn’t make up for five glorious sections of newsprint. In the unfettered confines of the Internet, companies can put the Library of Congress up on their sites, should they choose.

This is not an easy column for me to write, because I await the newspaper’s arrival every morning as if I were an eight-year old pining for Santa. The paper for me has brought information, income (I was a full-time reporter from 1983-87 and a part-timer for many years after that) and hours of enjoyment. I have many childhood memories of bolting downstairs to check a sports result in the paper, and I continue to cherish the time I spend with it today. The silencing of the presses will force upon me a behavior change that I probably won’t like at first, but which I will ultimately grow to accept and probably enjoy. (Although I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy doing a crossword puzzle on an iPad.) I have no choice. Neither do newspapers. The Times-Picayune’s decision, and USA Today’s metamorphosis into a “multi-platform sports organization” are just the latest steps in the journey.

It is sad when cherished institutions change, especially for those who adore them. But progress continues in all parts of our lives, and newspapers’ transformations are part of the continuum. Cherish the time we have left, print denizens, but prepare for the future. It will be different, and it might even be better.

At least we hope it will be.

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