Newspapers Need Less Paper, More Kindle to Survive, Says Madrona’s Tom Alberg

4/27/09Follow @xconomy

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of targeting ads online to niche audiences, Alberg says. He also read the trenchant analysis in January by Silicon Alley Insider, which calculated the New York Times could save money by stopping the presses, and sending all subscribers a Kindle. But he didn’t go so far as to say this is what newspapers ought to do.

Like all investors, Alberg personally relies on multiple sources of journalistic information to stay up to speed on what’s happening in the world. He skims the print versions of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Seattle Times every morning at home. “I like the newspaper,” he says.

That said, his personal habits have changed in the online era. He said he likes getting the newspaper content through his Kindle, which he pays for. It came in particularly handy for scanning the New York Times on a recent visit to Moscow, ID, where his son attends college, and he figured he might have to go on a scavenger hunt to find that paper on a newsstand.

Big national papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal certainly have their own problems with the expense of paper, ink, and distribution, combined with the mass migration of advertising to the less lucrative world of the Internet. But they will likely find a way to adapt to a new model because they have such strong brands and readership bases, Alberg says.

The bigger concern is with local papers, like The Seattle Times, which have played a traditional watchdog role over public officials that national media will never play in local communities. (He particularly cited the excellent work many years ago of Shelby Scates, a former P-I columnist known for digging in his day, as well as reporters who exposed a police bribery scandal in Seattle in the ’60s and ’70s.)

Alberg doesn’t believe that Internet search algorithms like those powering Google News will ever replace editors and reporters who do that kind of work. The computers don’t have the creative thinking processes to dig up all the information readers want and need—much of which will always be concealed from public view. When has a computer ever met a source in an underground parking garage, after all?

“There’s an important role for editors and people who are full-time reporters. The auto-aggregating devices aren’t good enough,” Alberg says. “You need editors to make news judgments, and need reporters who will find out when city officials are stealing money,” he says.

But if newspapers don’t figure out a 21st century business model fast, the consequences will be dire. “It’s a real danger that most city newspapers will disappear, at least in their printed version,” Alberg says.

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