Peter Drucker traced the invention of the modern newspaper to about 1890, when two innovations were changing the media landscape.
“One was [Ottmar] Mergenthaler’s Linotype, which made it possible to produce a newspaper quickly and in large volume,” Drucker explained. “The other was a social innovation, modern advertising, invented by the first true newspaper publishers, Adolph Ochs of the New York Times, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst. Advertising made it possible for them to distribute news practically free of charge, with the profit coming from marketing.”
For the next couple of decades, newspapers abounded. But they’ve actually been declining ever since. “Since World War I, the number of newspapers in every major country has been going down steadily,” Drucker noted in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Yet never has their decline been as swift or as brutal as during the past decade, with the rise of the Internet.
That, of course, is why this week’s announcement that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, has purchased The Washington Post has gotten people so excited—and alarmed. (Interestingly, Drucker himself wrote for the paper in the 1930s.)
“Amazon has embodied, more than any other of the giants that rule our new landscape, the faster-cheaper-further mindset that scratches away daily at our communal fabric,” an alarmed Alec MacGillis asserted in The New Republic. A more sanguine Noah Millman of The American Conservative remarked, “My own personal hope is that Bezos becomes the first Internet media mogul to actually downstream revenue to third-party content providers.”
For his part, Drucker had little sentimental attachment to dead trees. “Putting ink on heavy paper and then carrying that paper over long distances is about a hundred times more expensive and a thousand times slower than sending the same symbols electronically,” he wrote in Adventures of a Bystander.
For Drucker, this transformation was a powerful reminder that, more and more, people can find what they want—in this case, the latest news and information—through many, many different avenues. Among them, as Drucker pointed out, are “the printed newspaper, increasingly the same newspaper delivered online through the Internet, radio, television, separate news organizations that use only electronics” and so on.
The upshot: “Increasingly the same want is being satisfied by very different means,” Drucker wrote in Management Challenges for the 21st Century. “It is the want that is unique, and not the means to satisfy it.”
For someone like Bezos, the result is that nearly all previous assumptions from the days when newspapers had a virtual monopoly on the news—assumptions concerning reporter, story, advertiser, delivery truck and reader—are now open to question (as we’ve suggested previously).
So where to begin? The answer is both all too obvious yet all too elusive: “The starting point has to be what the customers consider value,” Drucker wrote. “The foundations have to be customer values and customer decisions on the distribution of their disposable income.”
How long that will include the morning edition landing on people’s front stoop (or in their rose bushes) remains to be seen.
What do you think the “newspaper” of tomorrow will look like?