Was Newspaper Decline Inevitable? Veterans Conclude That Yes, It Was

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Counter to conventional wisdom, they say advertising went away and there’s nothing newspapers could have done about it

A broad study by a group of respected journalists into the disruption that the digital age has brought to print has led them to a surprising conclusion: the decline was unavoidable.

Former Time Inc. editor in chief John Huey (above right), the New York Times' former digital chief Martin Nisenholtz (above left) and Paul Sagan, executive chairman of Akamai Technologies, have just completed a video project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government interviewing 60-some members of the media about the digital disruption that has decimated newspapers across the country.

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Their conclusion after all these video interviews, offered up at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference on Wednesday? Advertising went away and there's nothing newspapers could have done about it.

"We all came to agree… (Former Time-Warner CEO) Jerry Levine could have not done the AOL deal, but it wouldn’t have made any difference to disposition of journalism or content on the Internet," said Huey.

"What was common to every interview was the notion of the innovator’s dilemma," said Nisenholtz. "Is the Internet sustaining innovation?… Or is it fundamentally disruptive? Does it kill the business model? In the case of journalism, for journalism it was sustaining. But for the advertising it was disruptive. The oxygen got taken out of the financial model."

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This is a pretty significant conclusion. For most of the past decade, the conventional wisdom in print journalism circles has been that newspapers were far too slow to react to the threat presented by the Internet.

The argument has gone that newspaper owners – the association of newspaper editors, and similar groups for magazines – could not unite behind the idea of protecting their content, and instead pursued their individual interests, which resulted in disaster for all.

The argument further goes that if newspapers had put their news content behind a paywall immediately upon the advent of Internet technology – which suddenly made content available to everyone, everywhere at all times –  they could have sustained the value of reported news content.

These veterans now conclude that wasn’t the case. Said Huey: "The idea that the metro dailies didn’t see it coming is way wrong. There’s no evidence that if they kept moving there would have been a different outcome."

Said Sagan: "The disruption was fundamental. Knight Ridder saw it earliest, experimented the most, worked the hardest – and it doesn’t exist anymore. Their top budget (for innovation) was $1 million – which doesn’t amount to the sushi budget in Google’s cafeteria."

In other words, the newspapers were outgunned by the new online giants that had no investment in creating content. In fact, the panel concluded, none of these companies had any computer engineers, which it turned out was what was necessary to compete.

The video project is all archived online, and will be available for view on September 9 at digitalriptide.org . The notion that old media was outgunned was the basis for the name.

"The strongest swimmer in the world can get caught up by a riptide," said Huey.

As for the future?  "It will get worse before it gets better," he said. "The numbers don’t add up. But I’m confident that journalism will remain."