Forecasting the Future
A Q-and-A with Marc Frons, the New York Times' chief technology officer of digital operations Online Exclusive posted 6/25/09 3:45p.m.
By Katherine King
Marc Frons is the chief technology officer of digital operations at the New York Times, where he oversees technology and product development at NYTimes.com. Before joining the Times in 2006, Frons was chief technology officer for Dow Jones Consumer Media Group. He was also a reporter and editor at Newsweek, senior editor at BusinessWeek, and the founding editor of SmartMoney.com.
Do you see newspapers still existing in 10 or 20 years?
Frons: Newspapers will still exist, but I don't see them as a mass market medium 10 to 20 years from now. I think by that time, most people will be getting their news on electronic devices and not in print. Print will be a much smaller and more elite vehicle for the people who still want print and are willing to pay for it. The question isn't whether people will want to read printed newspapers but whether print will be economically viable. The truth is, circulation, while declining sharply for some papers, is relatively strong for the Times. But the decline in print advertising is a problem for everyone.
Q: Will there be a market of any kind for the printed newspaper?
Frons: If the question is, 'Are newspapers going to disappear?' No, but printed papers will probably be more akin to manual typewriters 10 to 20 years from now. If you're a young journalist, well there are careers in journalism but it's probably not exclusively on a print newspaper. If you're writing a story -- print is just the medium, you know. It could be anything. Once screen resolution, battery life, broadband access and the computing power increase to the level where the reading experience is equivalent, if not superior to what you can get in print. Unless you just like print. And that's fine.
Q: Why are newspapers losing so much revenue?
Frons: Before the Internet, many newspapers had an almost monopoly business in display advertising from department stores, automobile dealerships and major brands who wanted to get their message to readers. They also had a monopoly on classified ads, which was for years a high margin, almost automatic business for newspapers. You open up your newspaper, you have a classifieds section. If you wanted to sell your car, your house, your dog, your cat, have a garage sale, look for a job, advertise a job, whatever, you had to put it in the newspaper. There's no place else to do it. The Internet comes along, craigslist comes along, totally disintermediates the newspaper business. All of the sudden this cash cow just goes away.
Q: How can newspapers stay afloat financially without classifieds?
Frons: Classifieds are more important to some newspapers than others. But that's only one part of advertising. The other part that newspapers have done very well, especially national newspapers like the Times, is brand or display advertising. The Times still gets a lot of that online, just not enough to completely supplement what it gets in print. We need a mix of both. We need to do a better job helping advertisers connect with our readers and helping them understand the value of brand advertising online.
The great debate now in the industry is whether newspaper Web sites should begin charging readers for content or remain free. It's obvious that newspapers need more revenue, though the jury is still out on whether subscriptions, pay-per-view or some other form of paid content are viable ways to get there.
Q: Do you think anything will be lost journalistically when print goes obsolete?
Frons: In general, I think not. I think the main problem has been not so much that something is lost in print but that something may be lost in journalism if the economics of creating news and information and then having readers and advertisers pay for it keep eroding.
Q: How are online news stories different from print news stories?
Frons: There's a social dimension and a real-time dimension to news online that can't be duplicated in print. You can also be more comprehensive online than you can in print, and use interactive tools such as video and data visualization that allow you to tell stories in new and interesting ways. Journalists need to take advantage of all of these factors as they conceive, write and update their stories.
There also seems to be an emphasis on shorter, snappier stories because there's this notion that people's attention span isn't as long online as it is in print. I think that might be true, but I also think we do ourselves a great disservice if we boil everything down to 140 characters in a Twitter feed. Life is very complex and stories are complex and the economic climate we're in is really complex.
It's journalism's job to help explain that to people and you can't do that all the time in 500 words or less. I think there will always be an outlet for quality writing and information.
Q: Do you have any advice for graduating journalism students?
Frons: Good time to apply to graduate school. I'm not entirely kidding. I think 2009 is going to be an extremely challenging year to find a job in anything. We're in the worst recession in my lifetime, worse than in 1982. These are extraordinary economic times. It almost makes me want to be a fulltime journalist again, just so I can cover them.
Q: How should graduates who aren't going back to school find a job?
Frons: I'd say in general, target the places that you like and really know and would like to work at. Try to get in the door doing anything. I think it helps to be very computer literate. And by that I mean not just knowing how to use Microsoft Office and a Web browser. I think you have a substantial leg up on an older generation of journalists who just have a different appreciation and understanding of the medium.
But what I've found is that there are a lot of people who are just a little bit older than you who just don't get it that much. Their relationship to online is more as strict consumers and not as journalists. I think it's really important to look at the Internet critically, and by that I mean through an analytical lens.
You can't be ignorant of online and hope to have a career in journalism from now on. If I were a print journalist today and just discovering the Internet, I'd try to learn about it really fast. In order to be successful, you need to think more deeply about the possibilities and the limitations of technology and apply that knowledge to your work.
King (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a spring 2009 journalism graduate of the University of Connecticut.