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An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Tuesday, June 10, 2008 referred to a two-day Executive Leadership Forum that brought together more than 250 college and university presidents and other top administrators in Washington, D.C.  At the gathering, Bill Keller -- the executive editor of The New York Times -- argued that newspapers are likely to remain strong despite blogs and other forms of media that are vying for their currently dominant position.

Keller argued that, despite "a period of unprecedented upheaval, the news business is likely to emerge richer and more responsive to its readers."

He acknowledged, however, that the newspaper of the future will not be delivered in "that lovable old-fashioned bundle of ink and cellulose."

As the reporter noted:

With print circulation slipping and classified ads being diverted to free or cheap alternatives like Craigslist, many newspapers are struggling to stay in business. The same can be said of some colleges with traditional campuses, which have lost enrollment to universities that emphasize online courses.

"At least you have endowments. Why didn't we think of that?" Mr. Keller quipped.  "Substitute 'newspaper' for 'college,' and I've been on that panel..."

When editors get together, "people ask each other 'How are you?' in a tone you would use for a friend who had just emerged from a messy divorce or rehab," Mr. Keller said.

"Technology has lowered the barriers to entry in the news business," Mr. Keller said. "This is unsettling to the traditional news business, but it is also an opportunity."

While Keller acknowledged that newspapers are downsizing and closing DC and foreign bureaus during periods of increasing globalization, he predicted that newspapers would fare rather well in the Internet Age:

Established newspapers can succeed by offering something the newcomers can't, he added: "Google News and Wikipedia don't have bureaus in Baghdad or anywhere else." Rather than creating content, the new Web-based news outlets aggregate it from various sources, including newspapers.

Bloggers, likewise, occasionally enlighten readers with original material, but "most of the blog world doesn't attempt to report. It recycles news," he said.

Both blogs and automated aggregators like Google News depend on newspapers, which, unlike many online sources, offer rigorous standards, a code of ethics, and editorial supervision to enforce those standards, he said.

Keller said that newspapers are successfully adapting to the disruptive online technologies, for example, by merging print and web staffs, integrating audio and video with print, and supplementing in-depth articles with political blogs and reader forums.  In such a world, he views the newspapers of the future replacing the newspapers of today but also a lot of the new blogs and online forums that have emerged in recent years.  

Although Keller did not specifically mention electronic paper, e-paper is one of the many innovations to paper-based products that may breathe new life into newspapers if the media companies are smart about adopting these technologies as its capabilities improve and cost drops.      Keller hopes that:

...newspapers will succeed in attracting enough advertisers willing to pay premium prices to reach the growing audiences for multimedia news presentations. "I'm confident there is light at the end of the tunnel," he said, "and maybe the tunnel won't be that long."

Thus, Keller's comments suggest that newspapers want to continue down a digital path, which means that they are unlikely to see how hardware innovations like the Amazon Kindle could rekindle (no pun intended) their dying print business.  

In such a situation, newspapers could die a physical death but remain viable businesses online.  Like TiVo, which depends on the cable operators for the success of its digital television business, or like Apple, Microsoft and Google, who depend on the mobile carriers for the success of their mobile operating systems, newspapers may end up going down a path that makes them dependent on the hardware manufacturers of digital devices.  This is by no means inevitable, and it depends on the road that the newspaper industry chooses to follow.

Each path -- the physical or online one -- is fraught with risks and opportunities for the mainstream media.  But if I were the CEO of one of these newspaper empires, I would not be so quick to dismiss the print business and allow companies like Apple and Amazon to take over these markets with digital devices that provide electronic text, audio and video such as books and newspaper articles.  Instead, I might follow Robert Frost's advice, and travel the road less traveled:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the 'one less traveled' by,
And that has made all the difference.

Originally posted to YoSoyBoricua on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 10:01 PM PDT.

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