Saving Newspapers

Merry Christmas everyone. Just getting caught up on some news here. I made a post the other day entitled Trouble in the Newspaper Biz, in which I discussed some proposed business models for the newspaper industry to try. Some other interesting articles have come out in the past few days.  Joel Brinkley in How To Save the Newspaper Industry in the San Francisco Gate proposes that the government consider an antitrust exemption that would allow newspapers in a particular area to “collude” on a pricing structure that will allow them to charge for their Web site content. While I give Brinkley points for creativing, I don’t really think that gets to the heart of the problem.  For general news, people have gotten used to getting their news from a variety of sources, either by visiting many Web sites or by aggregating sources with RSS.  People will be hesitant to commit by locking themselves in to one or two sources.  Not to mention that there would be ways that important news would get out in other free sources, like blogs, the Daily Show or other options. Giving an antitrust exemption is a worse use of our government than a bailout. It sets a bad precedent for other industries that will suddenly want to create oligopolies and collude on pricing. Mark Potts on the Recovering Journalist blog seems to agree with me in his “Grasping at Straws” post. In regard to niche businesses, he thinks: “There are some potentially interesting models for newspapers to create paid premium products around niche verticals like exclusive business information, but those aren’t going to be major businesses.”

I think that newspapers need to get comfortable with “free” business models. It’s not like they haven’t been using one as a primary revenue source all along. Advertising is a model in which the people who read the paper don’t pay (or they pay a small amount for a subscription) while others subsidize by placing ads in order to get the attention of the readership. It’s worked for newspapers, TV and other media for decades (centuries).  But, newspapers are crying that the ad model isn’t the same on the Web, that they can’t generate the same amount of income that way.  I don’t believe it. There are two elements to this. The first is that there is no single ad model online, but many, many creative strategies for advertising in niches. Newspapers just haven’t done a good enough  job of that yet. And, then the second is all the efficiency available in the Web delivery model. You can’t tell me that you can’t make money in a system in which you severely reduce (or completely eliminate) expensive costs such as printing, paper, distribution and home delivery.  We just happen to be at a point where newspapers have not completely achieved those efficiencies yet, so profit is lagging.

The Media Futurist blog gives 10 Quick Ways to Reinvent Print Media. I agree. I think it is much more productive to think in terms of decentralizing assets, encouraging participation, aggregate content, engage mobile, and the other strategies in this article, than it is to encourage the industry to hang on to an antiquated business model with an antitrust exemption. The most interesting of the items in the Media Futurist post is #10. “Dive into Freemium models. Give me something for free that represents real value to me, but costs you very little. And please, upsell me from there – to all the other good stuff you have to offer.” Freemium was one of the models that Chris Anderson mentions. Storage is so cheap, you can afford to give some things away, while developing a community around other things you can sell.

Jeff Jarvis, on his Buzz Machine Blog, has been dealing with these issues. In a recent post entitled “Downbeat,” he reveals the dark inevitability of these changes, the out of work journalists that it is creating.  It is always sad when people lose their jobs, particularly those who seem to sacrifice for the greater good. But, newspapers are a business, and they must be run as such. Any business that meets with competitive threat or changing technologies is expected to adapt or die. As an instructor of budding journalists, I continue to convey to students the value of being a strong communicator, and that their journalism degrees will be highly valued, but probably not in the ways they traditionally think. They might not be a newspaper reporter, but there will be a lot of opportunity for people who understand technology and associated business models AND know how to communicate. You might not work for the NY Times or the Washington Post (or you might), but someone will value these skills and pay you for them. They will be particularly interested in your ability to be flexible and adapt. Jarvis, in his “Hope” post, also offers some suggestions from Edward Roussel for improving the business model: narrowing the focus, approaching news from a variety of angles including multimedia and audience engagement, outsource non-editorial expenses (like ad sales to Google), and above all, experiment.  That’s great advice, try new things and don’t be afraid to fail. Most of these things are free or cheap to try out, starting Twitter accounts, engaging comments on blogs, etc.

On another series of posts, Jarvis talks about a highlight of recent news, that the LA Times has been able to generate fairly substantial online revenue. In LA Times followup, Jarvis posts comments from editor Russ Stanton regarding the secrets to their success, including hiring Web resources, focusing on blogging, and most importantly, providing education to the staff, things like how to post to the Web, how to shoot and edit video, and how to write headlines that work for SEO.

The bottom line, is that newspaper companies need to stop worrying about saving newspapers and start thinking about reinventing themselves as media companies, regardless of the medium of delivery. Focus on providing good content wherever it is needed and use paper when it is appropriate, not just because that’s always been your business.

Some important research came out this week. A Pew Study indicates that more people get their news from the Internet than newspapers (Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Source). Television, however, is still cited by 70% as their primary source, but for younger people, is being rivaled by the Internet as well. HubSpot.com did a State of the Twittersphere report, indicating strong growth in users and follower trends (Most, 24%, have between 11 and 25 followers). A presentation is embedded at the end of the TechCrunch post.

And, the Nieman Reports from Harvard has 30 articles in its Winter 2008 edition that cover various aspects of digital journalism. I plan to read all of them, just not today…

Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll be having this conversation about the magazine industry in the near future. On the New York Observer,  John Koblin explains, “At Newspapers, It’s 2.0 Steps Forward, 1.0 Steps Back.” Many magazines are ignoring the Web. Magazines think they’re immune, but some of the most forward thinking are making Web changes. Many are going to Web only, and using print to make special, annual issues.  I agree, use print to make something beautiful, a collectors’s item, not something meant to be disposable.  Look at where No Depression is going, publishing a “bookazine” once per year. It’ll be a beautiful coffee-table piece. Or, the Christian Science Monitor, which is going completely on the Web, except for its Sunday edition, when readers can mull over the paper and take it in at their leisure.  This is in sync with the way I read newspapers. The only subscription I have is for the Sunday NY Times. Everything else I get online. But, I do look forward to Sunday morning, when I can go out and pick up the Times, dive in and percolate in it for a while. It feels very luxurious, like going to a spa. But, who has time for that on a daily basis? And, honestly, I think the reduced frequency increases my fascination with it. It is something to which I look forward, a part of my weekend routine that definitely relaxes me and improves my well-being.

And, just some food for thought. Sometimes it’s good to look to other industries for ideas.  MediaPost has “IPG: Digital Will Impact 5 Key Areas Next Year.”IPG Emerging Media Labs identifies five trend areas to watch next year related to browsers, conversation, transmission, retail and consumer tech.” I liked this line: “The new ROI is Return on Involvement.”

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1 Comment »

  1. Chris said

    Great post. I’ve been trying to follow the current state of newspapers as well and really enjoyed Jarvis’ post about the LA Times.
    I don’t know if you were there, but at MC Week there was a feature writing for the web (not sure if this was the title) panel wt some folks form the Statesman and the SA Express and they talked about in-house training for web (to a lesser extent than it sounds like the LATs is). They said blogging was not part of their “job description” per say, but it was highly encouraged. I was surprised by how these seasoned writers (the youngest was probably in their 50’s) still viewed publishing for web as novel and secondary. One of them (I cannot recall if it was AAS or SAE) did say that their editor asked them to begin planning their features first thinking of possible web extras.

    Also, I found an interesting discussion on this topic in a very unexpected place as I was watching the special features on season five of the Wire. One of the two writers (David Simon) was a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun. No wonder “The Wire” made the list of “Stuff Journalists Like” http://www.stuffjournalistslike.com/2008/12/312-the-wire.html.

    And, how do you like using WP for this? I am debating on doing my Austin Beer page on WP or just making a page of my own.

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