Writing in the current issue of the Atlantic under the stark headline End Times, Michael Hirschorn warns that the newspaper industry’s transition to a digital business model will be neither smooth, comfortable nor leisurely.
2009 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for the industry as it contends with shrinking advertising revenues in its print editions, the migration of readers to the internet, high debt loads and the sudden onset of a global economic recession.
Hirschorn regards the position of the New York Times as particularly perilous, as the company needs to find US$400 million by May in order to avoid defaulting on part of its US$1 billion debt load.
Not everyone agrees that the Times situation is quite so dire. But Hirschorn still makes some interesting conjectures on how newspapers such as the Times can best succeed in a post-print world:
Selling off assets would gain some breathing space, but Hirschorn suggests there’s a slim chance the Times might be forced this year to close or severely curtail its print editions in favour of a web-only news service. And what might that look like?
Forced to make a Web-based strategy profitable, a reconstructed Web site could start mixing original reportage with Times-endorsed reporting from other outlets with straight-up aggregation. This would allow The Times to continue to impose its live-from-the-Upper-West-Side brand on the world without having to literally cover every inch of it. In an optimistic scenario, the remaining reporters—now reporters-cum-bloggers, in many cases—could use their considerable savvy to mix their own reporting with that of others, giving us a more integrative, real-time view of the world unencumbered by the inefficiencies of the traditional journalistic form. Times readers might actually end up getting more exposure than they currently do to reporting resources scattered around the globe, and to areas and issues that are difficult to cover in a general-interest publication.
Hirschorn says the Times website “would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post, which, until someone smarter or more deep-pocketed comes along, is the prototype for the future of journalism: a healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting.”