Time to give up on newspapers, says MacPhail

By Wayne MacPhail

By Wayne MacPhail

I gave up on newspapers years ago. I haven't given up reading them, but I've packed in talking to them about the future.

I remember sitting in the boardroom of the Toronto Star in 2007 doing a presentation about social media, the lost opportunities of classified and the paper's unique position to create an open, electronic community hub. The people that could have made a difference in that room, the publisher included, weren't listening.

A few years later, in the same building, I attended a workshop by Steve Buttry, a great advocate of progressive journalism. Part way through the session, editors at the biggest papers in Toronto were defending the tradition of not putting links in stories to competitors' articles. The people that could have made a difference in that room weren't listening, this time to the sound the game makes when its rules change.

I was reminded of that breathtakingly naive debate when, last week, the same kind of defenses were mounted on Twitter after Mathew Ingram raised the issue on gigaom.com. The fact that newspaper people actual waste time defending no links in a linking economy is as addle-brained as someone going to Club Med year after year without puka beads and still being baffled when they can't buy a drink.

In further proof that the link economy is a deep mystery, more and more newspapers are erecting paywalls thinking they are zoos filled with scarce, exotic animals when in reality they're more like puppy mills in a land of strays. A majority of the content in newspapers is not unique and many papers still keep their truly special content (columnists for example) off the Web as if that will drive paper sales. And, of course, erecting paywalls just ensures that whatever valuable content is in there will be seen less and shared less. I agree with the sentiments of Mike Masnick who wrote in Techdirt last week  that newspapers should adopt paywalls with gay abandon, fail and make room for newcomers. The pigheaded desire to ignore reality shouldn't be rewarded, and should be called out for what it is – a vain attempt to prop up a business model that's a corpse.

Still others, The Hamilton Spectator comes to mind, offer to sell subscribers more paper in the shape of a New York Times supplement padded with stories those same readers could have found for free a week earlier online. Surely such come-ons are a worn-out distraction for news organs that should be spending their time exploring how to deliver more electronic content to mobile phones and tablets instead of serving up stale stories on cellulose. The tactics remind me of the mid-90s fascination newspapers in Canada had with voice personals while online classified startups where mounting their assaults against an undefended border.

And still others fret about reporters tweeting under their own names, sharing news and opinions or acting pretty much like every other wired human on the planet. The newspaper policy makers will, of course, have as much success as comes from telling teenagers with access to a graphic web that masterbation is a sin. That old school-marmish approach might have worked when reporters had few vehicles to get their voices heard. Now, if you don't have reporters who are developing their social capital, you have reporters who aren't as effective as they could be at gathering and sharing the news of the world. Newspapers who worry about this sort of thing remind me of the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, dismissing every advance with a tut-tut and a curt wave of a liver-spotted hand.

And, while I'm heartened to see Open Journalism principles being adopted by The Guardian, it is as much an industry outlier as a banker who shows up to work in cargo pants and Tommy Bahamas prints.

So, I've given up on newspapers. Back in the days when I worked in newsrooms, and later, when I spoke about what was coming, I cared about newspapers a lot. I loved them. I don't love them anymore. If I'm honest, I don't even much care for them. I love great stories, I love good long form journalism. I'm seeing that work come from elsewhere now, a science journalism startup MATTER being a recent, Kickstarter-funded example. I backed MATTER with my own money. I bet on it.  With the exception of the Guardian, there's no other paper I'd do the same for right now. And I'm sorry, newspapers, but it's not me, it's you.