Fast Forward

There’s a lot of commotion in newspaper offices around the world these days.  Publishers are laying off staff, experimenting boldly with the Internet.  Meanwhile, Yahoo’s infant News Division is hiring 30 columnists and a war correspondent.

What’s the newspaper of the future going to look like?  Chances are that it will look a lot like today’s Financial Times.   

I don’t mean the salmon-pink color of its pages. That clever device was adopted in 1893, when the paper was five years old, to differentiate it from its stronger London rival, the Financial News (which it acquired in 1945, after many years of fruitful competition).

Nor do I necessarily mean a broadsheet, though I suspect first-tier newspapers around the world will remain the more-or-less full-sized newspapers we know today and not tabloids.  The hot new format is known as a Berliner (a German company makes the presses), familiar to readers of Le Monde and recently adopted by the resurgent Guardian in London — narrow as a tab but three inches longer; in other words, a miniature version of a broadsheet, somewhat easier to carry and read.

I mean instead a full-service newspaper, competing in a global market (or in a highly concentrated geographic one), catholic in its interests, inventive in its graphics and design, presenting many elements of news and opinion arranged hierarchically on the page and throughout the paper.

The chief difference from today? Newspapers in the future will be leaner, smarter and less feather-bedded. And they will be more expensive to their readers. The two are, of course, related. Together, they add up to a result that is less than intuitively obvious.

Start with FT‘s most visible hallmark. Its concise and often lapidary stories do not jump.  That is, there is no irritating “please turn to page –” at the bottom of a story, any story, not even the three or four stories on page one. What is new and important to relate is compressed into the shortest possible space, along with just enough background material to make sense of it. To be sure, there’s a yarn every day that requires a page and a chart or two to tell, but almost all other stories in the first section of the paper run between 400 and 800 words.  The second section, devoted to companies and markets, contains some still shorter items.

The no-jump policy has been emulated by USA Today (which gradually has become quite a good newspaper).  Its section-front “cover stories,” however, are exceptions that illuminate the wisdom of the general rule.

The FT‘s customary jump is on the news itself. It is routinely a day ahead of its North American competition in the areas of special expertise.  Other papers get scoops, too, in their specialty areas. The Washington Post last week led all others covering the behind-the-scenes battle among House Republicans to succeed Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The New York Times had the story of the shrinking Arctic ice cap. The Wall Street Journal probably broke more stories across a broader front than the other two newspapers put together, and even discovered Times reporter Judith Miller, freshly released from jail, at dinner with her publisher. The FT, through its coverage of finance ministries, central banks, asset markets, global corporations and international business schools, just happens to have systematically staked out the various peaks and pinnacles of capitalism. For that reason, it dominates the desktops at a certain altitude. (For an account of how all this came to pass, see David Kynaston’s A Centenary History.)

Then, too, there is the scrupulously level tone that it maintains. Setting out its famous motto in 1888, “Without Fear and Without Favour” (in all capital letters, no less), the paper described itself as “friend of the honest financier, the bona fide investor, the respectable broker, the genuine director, the legitimate speculator; the enemy of the closed stock exchange, the unprincipled promoter, the company wrecker, the ‘guinea pig,’ the ‘bull,’ the ‘bear,’ and the gambling operator.”.

Writing a century later, longtime Times of London editor (and FT alumnus) William Rees-Mogg described it this way:  “It sets a standard of seriousness in its coverage which everyone admires. It is an unegotistical paper, free of the personal follies of much commercial journalism.  It is trusted as much on the left as the right, read by trade union leaders as carefully as by cabinet ministers.” This is still the case today, except that now the FT prints in 23 cities around the world.  Indeed, it is not too much to say that the FT quietly has become the world’s best all-around newspaper. 

And here’s the point. It achieves this success with a remarkably small staff — some 450 editorial employees, according to a recent estimate. That conforms to the standard rule of thumb for quality papers — one editorial staffer for each thousand of circulation (FT circulation is around 435,000 copies).

But it is less than half the number of staffers employed at editorial chores by The New York Times, which in many ways publishes a comparable daily report — a little stronger than the FT on cultural and science news, pretty nearly even on political affairs around the world, but far off the pace of  economic, business and financial developments.

The fragmentation of the advertising universe probably has hit the FT harder than most other papers. Its ads are relatively few or small, confined mostly to organizations interested in establishing prestige. (Its special sections devoted to particular countries, sectors and industries bring in a good deal of revenue and sharpen its competitive edge.) Last May the FT raised its price to $1.50, most aggressive of all the dailies. They seem to have made the increase stick.

If the FT can put out as good or better paper than the Times with less than half the staff, it suggests is that newspapers can cut their payrolls significantly and, if they are clever about it, still deliver the goods. Newsweek, for example, has cut its masthead staff from 350 in 1983 to 175 today with little diminution of its basic product.  Time, in the same period, has reduced its staff only a little (to 305 from 360), and you can fairly feel the bloat.

Clearly there will be fewer papers in the future. The ones that succeed will get more of their revenue from subscribers, and circulate among fewer people, decision-makers and the would-be decision-makers who we call well-informed citizens. But newspapers are not going to go away.  They enjoy two key advantages, both of which have to do with scarcity.

Since human cognitive capacity and attention span is limited, print likely will remain indefinitely the most effective way we have to summarize and digest and retain a lot of information quickly, even though it is already clear that computers will prove to be far superior vehicles for learning about cause and effect. Why should this disparity be the case? Cognitive scientists are working overtime on such questions. A great deal of commerce hangs on the answers.

That paper should trump pixels may turn on the single most obvious attribute of the printed word: its corporeality. It is physical evidence of what is being said, not easily changed. Nor is it very excludible. A newspaper, for example, can be passed along; it can be copied; it can be photographed and shown on television; it can be viewed by almost any number of readers: yet it can be retained as well. Print is a public act and not a private experience, intrinsically more trustworthy than what the eye assimilates in the click of a mouse. Thus the barrier to entry into the highest realms of news will continue to be a printing press, and not just any printing press but a highly profitable one, one that prints a paper all around the world that people want to read.

The Bloomberg empire, with its desktop terminals tied to an enormous proprietary database, is a fine example of powerful organization that has changed the news business forever but which, so far, has been unable to make the jump to print (its magazine doesn’t really count.). Sooner or later Bloomberg can be expected to buy or start a newspaper — perhaps even the FT — or itself be bought. In the meantime, though, there is no way an online enterprise, however masterful, can compete for influence with the world’s strongest newspapers — for the same reason that the most serious discussions of our culture are still structured around books rather than movies and television documentaries.

(What about blogs? Blogs are a micro-device for publishing and then aggregating tiny fragments of observation.  They are a little bit like scientific journal articles when they first appeared more than three centuries ago; a little bit like the invisible colleges of computer programmers who collaborate today, diligently but informally, to write and test “open-source” software. The idea in each case is the same: to make some affirmation, then turn it over to the community to which it may be of use to be evaluated and discarded or improved. The currency is much the same:  links instead of footnotes or reputation. The most interesting blogs can bring truly formidable pressure to bear when they begin to point to a particular truth. But they can they can no more replace print at the top of the explanatory food chain than journal articles could replace books. )

Finally, there’s only so much room in the papers themselves.  What gets into them is what constitutes “the news.” What remains outside — well, it remains nascent or is forgotten.   Print is the center-city of explanation.  It’s no more likely to disappear than is downtown.  (The same people who expect the end of newspapers argue that cities will disappear.)

There’s money in it for the newspaper that sets a standard — in this case, the standard for truth and fairness. Newspapers may be above all expressions of class interests, but credibility will remain the criterion by which serious ones are judged. Now the downsizing has just begun. There is even a ready-to-hand example of what happens next:  the airline industry around the world. In the US, for example, where it all started, it has not been easy to persuade staffs (or managements, for that matter), that the no-frills methods of Jet Blue and Southwest represent the wave of the future. Just think of the organizations that learned the hard way that the rules governing air travel had changed:  Eastern Airlines, Pan American Airways, TWA, now United, Delta and Northwest.

Yet for all that, the skies are full of airplanes and the airplanes are full of passengers, and the passengers, at least the business and professional travelers among them, are reading newspapers — even on Jet Blue, famous for its individual television screens. In the news industry, many interesting combinations and re-combinations lie ahead. Pearson, the conglomerate which owns the FT (it also owns the weekly Economist), could sell the world’s best all-around newspaper to someone else tomorrow (it probably won’t). Control of The Wall St. Journal could pass from the hands of the Bancroft family, which has lightly held the reins ever since Clarence Barron bought the paper in 1902. But in the end, daily newspapers, augmented but not transformed by operations on the Web, will remain our great engines for the discovery of provisional truth.