Some notes for Rip Van Winkle, journalist

So you're Rip Van Winkle, journalist, and you've just awakened from your nap to find that the newspaper business is all upside down and the Internet thing is right at the center of the mess. Before you start bellowing, here are some things you're going to want to say, and why they're wrong. Read on and save yourself some embarrassment:

"It's all the fault of the idiot managers who decided they should give away our content for free." Nope. Those of us who weren't napping actually tried charging for content, several times. Across the board, the results were brutally discouraging.

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt (literally). This is experience speaking, not dippy "information wants to be free" political theory. My first taste was in the pre-Web era when the Star Tribune tried to produce an afternoon news bulletin delivered to subscribers by fax. Technology made it possible. The marketplace said it was a dumb idea. The promotional T-shirt is in a drawer somewhere, along with memorabilia from the paid-access dialup-based online service we tried a couple of years later. Over the years, others have tried charging for online content, and the results across the board have been that hardly anybody is willing to pay. There's no business there. (Before you start to say something about, drink a cup of coffee and think for a minute.)

The truth is that people never bought general-circulation, local newspapers just for the news in the first place. They subscribed because newspapers provided a bundle of entertainment, utility, advertising and news. There was a time when lines of newspaper buyers formed outside the Star Tribune building in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday afternoons, waiting for first crack at the Sunday classifieds. The Web has ripped that bundle apart, leaving news all naked and alone, and it's just not as powerful as we thought.

"Its all the fault of those idiot managers who wasted all that money on the Internet instead of making the paper better." Wrong again. History will record the '80s, '90s and early 21st century as fat times for newsrooms. Yes, a lot of cash was carted off in the form of tribute to corporate investors, but the idea that newsrooms were underfunded is inaccurate. I know what newspapers were like in the '70s, '60s and earlier. No, the arrival of the Internet actually coincided with the best of times for staffing and pay scales in America's newsrooms.

So what did we get for that? A straight-line decline in readership. A pattern of progressive abandonment by successive generations. Clearly some outside forces were at work as newspapers slowly became less and less appropriate to the needs of the community. Failure to adapt? Yes, but not because of a lack of spending on reporters and photographers. The problem was simple inertia. Don't bother me about that Internet thing; I have a paper to get out.

"The problem is overarching greed." You might as well complain that corporate executives are bipeds. Are the creators of 21st-century dotcom successes any less greedy than the people who consolidated the newspaper industry into chains in the 20th? Nope.

"But Pew says 27 percent of the people don't use the Internet at all ... I'll bet they read a newspaper." Umm... Pew also says people who aren't on the Internet tend to be either over age 70, or they don't speak English. You want to base your hopes on that segment?


Preach it, Brother.

OK, this story is being told again and again on journalism blogs everywhere. The tale is long and sad, but pointless - because there is no solution in the telling of the tale. If news has no power to sell, then why do TV news shows exist - besides their somewhat lower costs to produce, than say a 30 minute sitcom. Why does CNN exist? Why does, the Huffington Post and the Drudge report exist? People do want news. People do consume news. I just think that the news business is undergoing change in the delivery system. It is a painful process that no one fully understands or can predict. So that makes it scary. Once it is over, I think that the news will be delivered faster and on multiple platforms. There is room for a lot of different types of journalism in the multimedia 21st Century. We just have to adapt.