Fear not the future. The long anticipated demise of the conventional newspaper business is a cause for celebration, not anguish. Freed from the shackles of an industrial age infrastructure that gave power to shape public opinion to a privileged few, the diverse, vibrant, self-organizing digital media market that is rising to take its place promises to end the unholy alliance between those who make the news and those purportedly devoted to "objectively" reporting it.
Watch as the lights go out – the Baltimore Examiner, Cincinnati Post, Honolulu Advertiser, Oakland Tribune, San Juan Star. Watch as other papers enter that twilight zone of partial production before calling it quits – the Detroit Free Press, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Birmingham News, Seattle Post Intelligencer. Marvel as the stalwart Washington Post and New York Times continue to burn through piles of cash as they try to hang on to their fading power, as newspaper obituaries pile up in the Newspaper Deathwatch.
It's not like the industry didn't have plenty of warning. As a young pup at Bell Labs back in the late 1970s, I worked with Knight Ridder Newspapers to help design and launch the first pre-Internet electronic newspaper. This was a defensive move intended to forestall the inevitable destruction of a business model that relied on a near-monopoly on local print advertising to pay for the massive printing presses, cumbersome delivery systems, and bloated union contracts required to publish a big city daily. It took longer than anyone thought, but Moore's Law shows no mercy to any technology that cannot hold its own in the game of better, faster, cheaper.
So what hath digital wrought? News used to be delivered pre-filtered and pre-digested, spoon-fed to a passive public raised on the idea that highly trained professional journalists and their noble editors enshrined accuracy and disinterested objectivity as their highest values. Sure, there were always curmudgeons like H.L. Mencken and others who understood that this idealization of journalism didn't match reality. But it took the advent of the Internet, the blogosphere, and alternative news sources to reveal the biases and co-dependent status between the declining mainstream media and the nation's political class.
No longer do we have to wait for someone else's selection and interpretation of yesterday's news to be delivered to our doorstep on slices of dead trees. Today, we can all be savvy, real-time news consumers. We live in a world of personal editorial control where we can shape our individual media experience using incredibly inexpensive and user friendly tools. My choices are the iPad and Zite, a news reader that scours the electronic universe for topics and editorial interpretations of the reader's choosing. Zite is tunable, timely, portable, and free. Train it up to look for material from both the left and right, national and international sources, and nothing comes close to so efficiently opening your eyes.
As a story breaks and unfolds you can simultaneously see how it is covered by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, National Review, and dozens of knowledgeable bloggers, providing a 360-degree perspective that easily reveals facts that spoil an editor's spin. Thanks to embedded URLs, readers can dig directly into most of the source material, be it a scientific or government report, the full text of a political speech, testimony before Congress, or a cellphone video shot on the scene by a citizen reporter.
After reading you can dive into the story yourself, weighing in with references to overlooked or related material that adds context. Piping out your own views through Twitter allows you to delve into a smoldering cauldron of fellow news junkies that can give legs to a story – uncowed by some politically correct editor ensconced in Washington or New York. And you can do all this while propped up in bed sipping your morning coffee before heading out to work.
This raises the question: Who will do the primary reporting after news bureaus shut down and paid professional journalists have to resort to serving lattes at Starbucks? The answer is: you and me. Think about it. Would you prefer to get your news through the eyes of some college kid who has never run a business, never served in the military, never designed a product, never closed a sale, never run for office, never conducted a science experiment, never performed on stage, never risked his fortune, and never hit a curveball, or from an array of people who have been there, done that, and have a clue about how the world really works?
The choice is yours.