When I was 19 or 20 I briefly lived above a drug store on one of the more heavily trafficked streets of Ypsilanti, Michigan. What exactly I was doing at the time or how I came to be living in that apartment - it was at one of those points in my life when I had little money and fewer prospects - I do not know, but I do remember my routine of stepping downstairs each morning and helping myself to a copy of the Detroit Free Press from the rack in front of the store.
In those halcyon days, newspapers were not sold in machines; there was simply a rack with a coin slot on the side. It operated completely on the honor system; there was nothing to stop you from carrying off all the papers, or, for that matter, the rack itself. Many people today would, I imagine, be touched by this vestige of a simpler, more trusting era, but to my callow late adolescent self, it meant only one thing: free newspapers.
I don't know how long it was, maybe a month or two at most, before I came downstairs on morning to find that the news rack had been replaced by one of the coin-operated machines which you still see in in use today. It hadn't previously occurred to me that others besides myself would have helped themselves to newspapers without paying; I assumed that the free papers had been provided for me alone, and that everyone else would continue to be bound by the honor system. I felt vaguely indignant about this, tut-tutting to myself over society's declining moral values, and at the same time, feeling a sense of power and personal significance for having been on the cutting edge of the Zeitgeist.
I felt something similar when I started reading stories about newspapers going out of business, or having to drastically cut back on staff and print runs to avoid doing so. I was raised in an inveterate newspaper-reading family, and literally taught myself to read at ages 3 and 4 by poring over pages of the Detroit News and asking (to the point where I'm grateful they didn't strangle me) my mom or dad to explain the meaning of every other word I encountered.
In all the years I lived in California, I seldom missed an issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, and one of my several reasons for wanting to live in England involved the profusion and quality of newspapers available there. During my first several years in London, I routinely purchased the Guardian, the Times and the Independent and harshly chastised myself for failing to get through all of them on a daily basis.
Before I lived in England full time, I spent a small fortune buying copies of those same papers that had been air freighted over to the USA (at $3 to $5 a pop, considerably more on Sundays), so you can imagine what a great idea I thought it was when they began publishing internet editions. Now I can and do on a daily basis look at least three British papers (I've replaced the Independent with the Daily Mail), the SF Chronicle, the New York Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, and look in somewhat less frequently on the Detroit Free Press and half a dozen freebies like the Berkeley Daily Planet, SF Bay Guardian, Village Voice, etc.
But how often do I actually pick up a physical copy of one of these papers, much less pay for one? Answer: almost never, and when I do, usually only under special circumstances, like having some time to kill in a cafe or an airport waiting lounge, and even then I'm usually more likely to have a book or magazine with me. So once again I see the results of my individual (in)action being writ large: if current trends continue, experts are predicting, most newspapers as we have known them will be extinct in a few years.
True, more people than ever are reading online editions of these same papers, but nobody has yet figured out a way to "monetize," as they put it, this readership. In the early days of online publishing, some papers tried charging subscription fees for digital access and got nowhere; almost all of them now offer free access. Advertising is in a tailspin already due to the economic crisis, but even if it weren't, I'd be dubious of the real value of online advertising. I know I personally take little or no notice of online ads unless they are of the obtrusive popup or rollover variety, and my reaction then is not so much one of "Hmm, that looks interesting, I should check it out" as "Damn it, I'm trying to read here, get that crap out of my way."
In short, I can't remember a single instance where I bought a product or service based on an online ad, but can remember several where I vowed never to deal with certain companies again because of the annoyance factor of their ads. So, what's the solution? And if subscription fees or advertising won't pay the bills, who's going to produce the content, staff the overseas bureaus, maintain the websites, etc.? In other words, it won't be just the physical newspaper that goes missing.
Others claim that the big news organizations are a thing of the past, and that their function will be taken over by smaller, more efficient units like, for example, blogs. Given, however, that most bloggers are hugely dependent on the mass media for their source material and that very few bloggers are in a position to devote themselves to fulltime news coverage or investigative reporting, I'm not sure I see how that could work.
So what's the answer? I don't have one. Somebody - hopefully - may think of one, but so far, at least, it's not me. Even though one of my ongoing daily struggles is finding enough time to read all the various media sources available to me, I'd feel greatly impoverished if they were no longer there. One of you geniuses out there, please sort this one out, and quickly.