What universities can learn from the demise of newspapers

The Newseum in Washington DC, struggling financially for more than a decade, closed its doors to the public on December 31. I was fortunate to visit a few years ago, and the loss makes me sad. The fate of this museum, dedicated to the history of journalism and the free press, seems symbolic of the fate of print journalism itself. Newspapers, once mainstays of democratic societies, have largely gone by the wayside.

Universities are like news organizations in that in the free world, they are institutions that have always defined themselves. I hope universities do not make the same mistakes committed by the business of journalism.

Technology has changed the way people consume news. But the demise of newspapers is not primarily due to technology. It’s due to the bungling ways media organizations responded to technology. They conspired in their own disruption.

Newspapers are dead because for decades they tried to be everything except what they were. They turned their backs on their strengths – context, judgement, authoritativeness, thoroughness, trustworthiness – while trying to imitate their supposed rivals.

Newspapers were already in trouble when I graduated from journalism school into a tight job market thirty years ago. And the roots go back much farther than that. When radio entered people’s homes, newspapers tried to become like radio, choosing speed and sensationalism over accuracy. In response to television, newspapers became more colourful, image-oriented, and with much shorter stories. By the time the internet was ascendant, in the public’s mind newspapers had no purpose distinct from the alternatives.

Online classified advertising erased corporate profits, but the newspaper itself was already irrelevant, easily displaced by the cheap substitutes it had come to resemble.

Microwaves were supposed to replace ovens, but ovens continued to do what they always did really well, and today microwaves are mainly used to rewarm our coffee. Newspapers cut their newsrooms, turned themselves into apps offering the same content as their rivals, and most of them got crushed.

It didn’t have to be that way.

Near as I can tell, universities are healthy. Online learning has hardly been a death blow. Not because online learning is bad, but because it’s a microwave oven. The university – that blend of social, physical proximity and shelter for solitude and quiet – that balance of conversation and contemplation – is very hard to substitute.

Universities do change, and must change. But to remain relevant, they must also tenaciously cling to what they are at their core, not try to imitate everything out there that they are not.

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