CRITICS: Bring out your dead.
NEWSPAPERS: I'm not dead yet.
CRITICS: Well, you will be soon. You're very ill.
NEWSPAPERS: I'm getting better!
CRITICS: No, you're not. You'll be stone dead in a moment.
I don't entirely agree that what ails newspapers is terminal. In fact, I'd suggest that instead of an autopsy of the newspaper, it's time for a biopsy on its readers; after all, these readers are TV watchers, too. What the procedure will uncover is some chilling insight on what ails the TV audience -- early indicators of the challenges and threats that traditional TV faces in the coming years.
By analyzing the DNA of readers, I happen to think that there's clear evidence that the demise of newspapers (as we knew them) was not merely a function of the Internet doing news better than the printed version.
Sure -- the Internet hit print where TV and radio couldn't, with its portability, searchability, updateability, and price. But the tipping point for newsprint's viability occurred when the Internet eroded newspaper's most time-honored allure.
The Internet destroyed the ritual of reading.
Ushered in by BlackBerries, email, and broadband, the Internet ultimately hit print the hardest by changing the structure of time in our mornings, reformatting daily repetitive behavior that had stood unchanged for generations. Constant communication and connectivity invaded the inner sanctums of our a.m. rituals -- the chronological set-asides that were once as sacred as our own identities.
Newspapers had amassed over a century's worth of ritual, engrained into our culture and our psyches. Newspapers owned the mornings; TV and radio never really became much more than background noise.
But the Internet -- well, it was the boisterous in-law who moved in and never left. It changed our inquisitiveness. It changed the very way -- and times during which -- we communicated.
And in the rubble that ensued, you'll find the deteriorating remains of ritualized reading.
The resurrection of ritualized reading by the newspaper industry will start when it acknowledges the vital importance of ritual itself. To succeed, newspapers must regain their tactile time in hand; they must stake out their fair share of face time with the reader -- a/k/a TV watchers. And to do this, they must find a new way for people to pick up old habits -- the habit of reading the most dominant singular source of localized journalism.
So, as we ask our patient to replace the gown with his street clothes, let's consider how these findings relate to TV viewing.
TV's modern golden age peaked in the 1990s, with NBC's juggernaut "Must-See TV" campaign. Their success had as much to do with the quality of their content, as it did with the symbiotic union of space and time. NBC owned Thursday nights.
Said another way, NBC's habit-forming, blockbuster schedule ritualized Thursday nights.
And if you really think about it, where cable nets have always tended to struggle -- and recently, broadcast networks as well -- is when they mess with their schedules (or, like many cable networks, when they fail to craft and engrain a recognizable schedule for viewers to comprehend in the first place).
With that in mind, it is very possible that efforts like Hulu's, striving to bring the most popular TV content to the Web, will be looked back upon someday as the video equivalent of online newspapers -- a Pandora's box that didn't have to be opened, at least not quite in the way it was.
The TV-viewing environment is starting to look startlingly susceptible to a fatal erosion of ritualized TV watching.
The lesson we must learn from newspaper readers is that migrating content to a hardware platform of choice can (and often does) alter the cycles of behavior. The TV set, and traditional TV viewing, has already seen its ritual lose much of its luster. It is just one device away from seeing a complete disintegration of ritual.
And that's assuming newpapers do nothing to impact TV and its vestigial rituals, other than to struggle to retain a portion of their setting dawn-side dominance. As Dave Morgan correctly points out, the most successful newspapers have several assets beyond news-gathering capabilities - among these, strong sales arms and a unique, powerful locally monopolized distribution network. These weapons may soon harness the power of the Internet -- and the TV set -- to bring a new form of interactive news to a PC --and plasma tube -- near you.
Before TV goes on life-support, let's take a closer look at its viewers. This ritual thing is genetic, you know.