Between the Lines: In digital times, local papers will survive

This thing you are reading may look like a newspaper. But in a sense it’s actually a dinosaur.
Those of us who were brought up on print still love our dino-papers. We will probably continue reading them in varying degrees until the day we die. Indeed, it’s been said that the best hope for the newspaper industry is Americans over 50.
Which means the business in its present form has got maybe another 30 years before it’s the stuff of legend.
We’ll remember print newspapers the same way we pine for the fresh milk that used to be delivered to our family’s doorstep every morning. We’ll recall the scrunch of a morning paper being read at the breakfast table in the same way we recall the smell of Pop Tarts fresh from the toaster.
But few kids born today will grow up to say their first job was having a newspaper route.
With the possible exception of a couple national dailies and a scattering of excellent local papers such as this one, print versions of newspapers will soon be like old leather bellows. Cracked and creaky, good conversation pieces, and excellent for starting fires.
Anyone who thinks otherwise obviously does not have an iPad.
I will spare you a litany of the many wonderful things about the leading tablet computer. Let’s just say the iPad represents the kind of transformation that occurred when television went from three channels in black and white, to 50 channels in color.
Like cable TV, the iPad delivers lots of highly disposable junk. But it also opens up a bright and engrossing new world of knowledge and entertainment.
Already the possibilities of the tablet form — the ability to go well beyond the inherent restrictions of print — are being realized by pioneers such as Al Gore. He has authored/compiled/directed “Our Choice” for the iPad. This multimedia sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth” is a deeply involving documentary/book/movie. Call it a “docubookie” or “boovietary.”
The iPad also delivers a pretty satisfying version of newspapers. For example, it pulls in The New York Times at one-third the price of the print version — with the convenience of home delivery you can’t get in Addison County for the print version.
The online Times ($5 a week for the iPad) affords access to an array of video, blogs, way more photos than can make it into print, mashups of sound and data about radio programs, and ingeniously interactive maps.
It’s enough to make this old newspaper guy wish he could sit down at a computer with a case of Red Bull and write code for the next 48 hours.
Even before the availability of the iPad, many of us have been reading newspapers on our computers for more than a decade. We’ve been guiltily guzzling the news for free from the websites of the Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald or The New York Times, when we used to pay 75 cents or more a day to read them in print form.
The result for some newspapers has been an explosion in readership — the Times has never been so influential or so widely read — and a frightening decline in paid subscriptions and the ad revenues tied to print.
About those declining ad revenues: Historians and PhD candidates will spend the next few decades debating where newspapers went wrong in the digital age.
As the Internet grew, newspaper companies felt they had no choice but to offer their content for free online. They thought they were in a race for “eyeballs” that would supposedly bring with them a fresh, mountainously large source of ad revenue.
But it turns out to be impossible to charge the same amount for advertising online as for print ads. And online, newspapers are seen by many Internet users as just one of a gazillion choices.
The Wall Street Journal is one exception. It has for years been successfully charging its readers for online content.
Recently the Times put up a “paywall” that sharply limits how many articles readers can see for free online. The failure or success of this strategy may determine the paper’s fate, and perhaps that of newspapers as a medium.
In the meantime, regional daily papers such as the Free Press and the Herald face an uncertain fate. In Vermont and everywhere else, younger readers increasingly turn to other sources for their daily news and entertainment, as many of the dailies’ longtime subscribers get older and eventually pass on.
Cities such as Detroit now lack a daily paper, and once great papers such as the Los Angeles Times are sad shadows of their former selves.
The happy exceptions to this startling decline, I hasten to add, are weekly and twice-weekly papers such as this one.
That’s partly due to the lack of digital alternatives. If you want to know what’s going on in the world, you can get your news from print, broadcast media, and/or online sources. But if you want to know what’s going on in Addison County, you simply have to read the Addy Indy.
It’s true that it is possible to view this newspaper online, if you pay for it. (The paper has, quite wisely I think, decided not to give away all of its content online for free.) But except among snowbirds who keep track of Addison County news from their winter perches in Florida, the majority of readers get this paper in print form.
Vermonters have a knack for embracing the best of things new and old. In the former category is Gov. Peter Shumlin’s initiative to bring high-speed Internet service to every Vermont household.
Yet we also hold on to the old pleasures of print, because they still fit this state’s identity. Even in the age of the iPad, Vermont’s community newspapers remain a deeply embedded part of our culture.
Gregory Dennis is a freelance writer who spent 16 mostly fun years as a newspaper editor, in a career that began 37 years ago in Middlebury. His column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at MiddleburyVT.blogspot.com. E-mail him at GregDennisVT@yahoo.com.

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