It's no secret that in a world of news at Twitter speed, print seems to be getting left farther and farther behind. Like others, I've written about this a couple times previously, and of course there was the Daily Show's fabulously snarky take on "aged news" a couple of years ago.
But the stunning, thrilling events of the past few hours in Egypt have highlighted, yet again, how much the news business has changed, and how bad newspapers look as a result. Newspapers were printed last night—barely making deadline as it was, because the story broke fairly late—with headlines blaring that Hosni Mubarak was refused to step down in Egypt.
But with the ink still drying this morning, those papers quickly became woefully out of date. Their Web sites have been updated with the news of Mubarak's resignation, of course, but the papers were still selling print editions that were, well, wrong. Guess they'll correct it in tomorrow's paper. (To give credit where credit is due, incidentally, Rupert Murdoch's iPad news app, The Daily, has quickly broken free of the strictures of its name and begun offering more frequent updates.)
This wasn't really a problem for newspapers a generation or so ago. Back then, they were pretty much the only source of news, save for TV coverage (at least of important events) and radio news. But the advent of the Web, Twitter, mobile news apps, multiple cable news channels and any number of other new competitors is more and more rendering print newspapers, in their traditional form, obsolete.
The fast-breaking Mubarak story is an unfortunate example of how horribly behind the times newspapers can seem (and I don't just mean their management). But the truth is, smaller examples of print news obsolescence now appear multiple times throughout newspapers, as stories change after presstime. They simply can't keep up with the faster news competitors surrounding them anymore.
What are newspapers to do? A couple thoughts: First, maybe it's time for papers to stop trying to be the snapshot of the previous day's events. Rather than print information that's almost instantly out of date, they should concentrate on providing more analysis, perspective, context, non-news-pegged features and forward-looking coverage—much like a newsmagazine. That would require a major change in editor-think, but it would better reflect the new world. The whole "newspaper of record" thing is now pretty passé.
More fundamentally, this is an argument for papers to double down on their quicker digital news-delivery products. They need to finally come to grips with the idea that the product to which they still devote the vast majority of their resources—that print edition—shouldn't be getting primacy in management attention and resource allocation. Unfortunately, in just about every newspaper newsroom I know of, the digital version is very much a second-class citizen, while most of the attention still goes to putting out a product that's immediately out of date. That strikes me as poor priortization. The news—and the audience—now exist in a real-time digital world. Shouldn't that be where resources are focused? The print edition should be the afterthought.
One personal story from today's events in Egypt: Just after Mubarak announced his resignation, I tore myself away from watching Al Jazeera TV's terrific coverage to take my car down to a local service station for a state inspection. The guy who does the inspections is Egyptian—and he greeted me at the service bay door holding a smartphone tuned to Al Jazeera TV. He had a giant smile on his face. "Did you hear the news? Did you hear the news?" he exulted. I told him I had, and congratulated him on the triumph of his people.
Of course, if he'd relied on the "news' in the printed Washington Post being sold a few feet away, he wouldn't have known about his country's liberation.
PS: In some ways, this is even worse: The online version of The Wall Street Journal's print front page gives no hint that the news had changed since the paper was set in type last night. (This screenshot was taken nearly 12 hours after Mubarak resigned.)
That's really inexcusable. Yeah, sure, that "In Today's Paper" page on WSJ.com is supposed to be the representation of the print edition. But it's an HTML page, not a PDF, and thus can be updated. Would it be so hard to add a line below the lead story pointing to the latest developments elsewhere on the site? That's just odd.