Sunday, May 3rd, 2009
I admit it, I love newspapers. I really enjoy spending time with a cup of coffee and a leisurely read. Whenever I travel, I always try to grab as many newspapers as I can in the town I’m in. That’s one reason I love London – so many to choose from. I’m probably one of the few people buying both The Sun and The Guardian. When I was in Buenos Aires for a couple weeks last year, I would make a 30 minute hike from my hotel every morning to find the one news stand selling the Newspapers Direct edition of the The Guardian. Even today, if I’m in Chicago on Monday, I walk over to Borders State St. and pick up The Observer for $6, because I’d much rather read the actual paper than read online. I subscribe to the New York Observer via mail order.
It’s no secret that newspapers in are a state of crisis in America. While this post might seem a bit OT, newspapers are an essential part of civic identity in most places, and have historically played a key role in city life. So given that, and my love of the newspaper, I feel justified in turning the Urbanoscope on the newspaper industry.
The True Concern
Print newspapers could be out of business almost completely in America in short order. There’s no guarantee, but all the trend lines are heading the wrong direction. The recession has only brought the structural problems into stark relief. Many people feel it is essential to save the newspaper. But I think first we need to ask ourselves what it is that we want to save. We could be talking about, I think, three different things:
- The business model of the newspaper (i.e., delivering eyeballs to advertisers)
- Journalism as currently conceived
- The physically printed paper
I don’t think anybody would be sad to see #1 go. Most of the angst seems to be over the decline of journalism, and secondarily over the decline of print. So I’ll focus my thinking there. But this does highlight the problem in most thinking about the future of the newspaper, since most of it has been around how to continue to attract readers online, without sufficient thought around the business model.
Drivers of Decline
Why is the newspaper business model failing? There are a few reasons:
- Readership, especially among younger people, has significantly declined. They are more comfortable getting their information online than via print.
- The economic model of online content distribution and advertising is significantly different than that of print. People tend to expect content online for free (which actually isn’t that different from print truthfully – in fact, many newspapers are free today). And advertising is based more on a “pull model” (e.g., Google search keywords and pay per click) than the traditional “push model” of banner ads and such, making news a poor fit with online economics.
- Alternative platforms have provided a superior eyeball aggregation platform for selected segments of the advertiser community. Things like general classified ads, personals, dating, cars, etc. have all be effectively taken over by specialty platforms that better match advertisers than consumers. This has really hit the revenue of newspapers.
- The fragmentation of the great middlebrow American common cultural institutions makes the newspaper an anachronism. The idea that a single monolithic platform like a daily paper will appeal to the entire broad community is as obsolete as the notion that American’s will only watch three networks. We are seeing a trend towards more segmented niches in almost every market, and the traditional newspaper is a very bad fit for this. The stab that the newspaper industry has taken at this, namely the proliferation of local editions segmented by geography, has done some good, but ultimately hasn’t stemmed the slide.
- The journalists at the daily paper are no longer the arbiters of news. Their gatekeeper function has been destroyed. The idea that the daily paper sets the agenda in the local community is obsolete. Newspapers still can “move the market” with investigative reports, but they are no longer the sole arbiter of what news is “fit to print”. Alternative channels such as blogs and talk radio have had a huge impact, particularly in political coverage. One thing that this has really exposed, frankly, is that journalism has always, despite its pretense of objectivitly, skewed the story. What previously would never have been discovered, is now often exposed by bloggers. The Rathergate story comes to mind, as do few of the “fauxtography” scandals. These sorts of things have incredibly damaged the brand of journalism as devoted to facts not opinion. And the fact is, people seem to want opinion, something that Fox News successfully exploited. Traditional news outlets basicaly responded in kind, by becoming more overtly political themselves. The idea that, especially when it comes to political coverage, that there is anything like a neutral point of view, has basically been exploded.
Frankly, I’d argue that in some respect the quantity of real investigative journalism has gone up in the era of blogs. If you want to know more deeply what’s going on in Indianapolis news, you don’t read about it in the Star, you read about it from people like Gary Welsh, Paul Ogden, Jennifer Wagner, Chris Worden, Abdul Hakim-Shabazz, and Bil Browning. These are all people with agendas to be sure, but fairly transparent ones and you can easily process anything they say through that lens. Interestingly, they are mostly rather colorful personalities as well. Abdul, for example, in addition to being a lawyer, blogger, and radio show host, is also a cigar smoking, black Muslim stand-up comedian.
The challenge with these media, however, is the economic model. Consider my own blog. I’ve targeted a niche and successfully acquired an audience. I’m frequently told how valued the analysis and insight that I provide is. However, economically speaking, the blog has a value of zero since I receive no income from it. (As an aside, one of the most personally disappointing things for me about running this blog is that people have come to perceive me primarily as a writer/journalist. That’s a noble calling to be sure, but while I don’t think I’m a bad writer, I’d like to think that the secret sauce to this blog is not my pretty prose, but compelling content that comes from powerful strategic insights about what makes a city tick).
That might be a sustainable model for some blogs, especially those where the publisher is on some type of personal holy crusade (which seems to be a lot of them), but is probably insufficient to sustain journalism as we know it. Consider the example of Cory Schoutten at the Indianapolis Business Journal. Cory is the kind of guy who will camp out at the county courthouse all day groveling through files to try to make sense of a dispute. Putting aside for a moment whether one agrees with the conclusions in the article, who is going to do the heavy lifting to research investigative pieces like this one without a full time platform to do it from? I’d like to believe this type of research is important. Who will uncover tomorows Hired Truck Scandal when there is no more Chicago Sun-Times? It’s an interesting question.
So let’s make an attempt to take this thing apart and put it back together again and see if we can come up with a sustainable economic model that will continue to support print style journalism in some form, even if it might not be journalism as we know it today.
The Flaw in the Model
Firstly, let’s consider who reads newspapers and why? The traditional business model of the newspaper was eyeballs for advertisers. The customer of the newspaper is the advertiser. The newspaper’s product was being able to aggregate eyeballs and deliver them to the advertiser more effectively than the advertiser could do this itself. Advertisers want to reach potential customers, and to do so they need a platform. The newspaper provided this platform by generating content that people would find valuable enough to read, and provided it to those readers below cost in order to boost the subscriber base.
I think this is important to understand. The newsstand price for a paper is as much an illusion as the fare one pays for transit. That is, it is not paying the full cost of production of the end product – not by a long shot. In fact, many papers such as alternative weeklies or the Red Eye are free.
My hypothesis is that there were large fixed costs involved in publishing a newspaper – printing presses, advertising departments, corporate overhead, distribution, etc. – which led to a strategy of maximizing the number of readers by bundling different types of content that might logically target different markets into a single package – e.g., news, sports, lifestyle, entertainment, business, etc. It wasn’t that economic to create a daily paper focused on a more narrow market. The marginal cost of adding a new section was low compared to the overhead of the paper itself, making this monolithic approach rational.
As I said above, I don’t think this model is sustainable. In effect, the newspaper is like an old school department store – and we all know how well that turned out. The online world is hyper-focused. And the fixed costs/scale economics of that model are very different. Thus the first thing we need to do when looking at how to evolve the newspaper is to question the idea of everything for everybody and do a basic customer segmentation analysis. Who reads the paper? Why do they read it? How many of them are there? What are they willing to pay and how much are advertisers willing to pay to reach them? Armed with this information, you can decide the best markets to target and figure out the right economic model for each.
I believe an essential part of the future news organization will be that it is targeted on specific reader segments, not a conglomerate type model. This means more specialty publishers, possibly with different economic models supporting each. Here are some potential economic models that could be applied to various forms of media:
- Marketing Model. This is about viewing spending on journalism as a marketing expense for some other activity. Much political discourse is already funded this way. A lot of what is written in the political world is effectively underwritten by wealthy benefactors who are willing to pay to get their preferred political message out. Political parties and others publish stuff all the time. We are seeing any number of organizations see the value in hiring journalists to write for them as a form of marketing. For example, the Indiana Pacers hired Indianapolis Star reporter Conrad Brunner to write for their web site. A lot of blogging can conceivably be justified as a brand building exercise to support other activities.
- “Red Meat” Model. Sadly, the best way to attract large numbers of eyeballs online seems to be by catering to some specific, generally highly partisan segment of the political community and just pounding the table all day long with the party line. This isn’t a model in and of itself, but it enables sufficiently high traffic to enable advertising to possibly work, as well to enable community supported models. Several of these sites run fund drives to keep themselves in business.
- Professional/Trade Journal Model. This seems to be viable. Anything where you can possibly justify charging the subscription cost as a business expense would appear to be fairly stable. The Wall Street Journal hasn’t lost subscribers. Most local business weeklies appear to be hanging in there. These types of papers can a) maintain subscribers because of their focus, b) charge a lot of money since someone else is paying, and c) have a higher income reader base that is valuable to advertisers. The Journal and FT both even charge extra for online access to print subscribers – and get away with it. That seems to show they will have some durability, even online.
- Public Broadcasting Model. This involves creating a non-profit that raises funds from individuals, foundations, and governments to finance some type of journalistic activity. Given that non-profits of various types seem to survive, this seems intuitively plausible. As with the marketing model, however, this implies journalists who are capitve to the funder base.
- Magazine Model. Magazines seem not to have been hit quite as hard as newspapers. You’ve seen a proliferation of glossy, high production value publications that sell at very steep news stand prices. Could some type of higher production quality attract an audience willing to pay a premium price (and possibly advertises to follow), and would this enable the economic model to survive?
- iTunes Model. This seems to be what many people are hoping could save various forms of content. The cost per song is low, the convenience factor of buying online is high, and thus people are actually willing to pay for musics, movies, etc. Amazon is trying something similar with the Kindle, and while I don’t own one, my understanding is that you can buy newspapers through it at an attractive rate, though whether this would pay the freight of producing it remains to be seen.
- Financial Newsletter Model. There have traditionally been any number of people out there selling financial newsletters with investment advice that sell for a very high price, even thousands of dollars a year. I don’t know where this model is today, but if you are offering extremely high value content that a select audience is willing to pay a lot for, that could offer a model for selected types of content.
- Traditional Advertising Model. A newspaper could attempt to do the eyeballs for advertisers model in an online fashion. If the cost base were low enough, this potentially might be viable.
The key is to find market segments/economic models that are viable longer term and migrate to that structure.
A few other thoughts come to mind as well.
- Most newspaper companies are burdened with a lot of debt and cruft resulting from legacy practices. Traditionally, local newspapers had a pretty much impregnable franchise. Most markets had only one daily paper and one alternative newsweekly. This gave advertisers few other outlets to reach customers, which led to fairly stable cash flows over time. Owners were then able to use gearing to optimize their capital structures and boost returns. And the value of the franchise only went up over time, so there was always an exit strategy. I’m not a real estate guy, but it strikes me that this was similar to real estate investing and thus fundamentally a buy low, sell high business not entirely dissimilar from securities trading, enabled through the use of leverage and backed by fluctuating but reasonably stable cash flows. No doubt this accounts for part of its attractiveness to Sam Zell, who was the absolute master of this strategy in real estate. Nobody did it better than Sam Zell. Unfortunately, he made his newspaper investment just as the revenue stream of the newspaper business tanked, killing a highly levered enterprise, and destroying the asset value. Instead of buy low, sell high, it was buy low, sell lower – if you can. Also, what do you do with assets like printing presses if you are getting out of the print business? The Boston Globe appears to have a union contract that guarantees jobs for life. It might actually be easier to start de novo rather than trying to reposition an existing entity. (The Tribune Company has the “benefit” of being in bankruptcy, so that facilities a restructuring).
- Investigative reporting and the “watchdog” function of journalism has a lot of the characteristics of a public good. That it, it is non-rivaled and non-excludable. This makes economic production difficult due to the free rider problem. Typically, public goods such as national defense are provided by the government and financed through taxation. Obviously, serving as a watchdog on government can’t easily be done by the government. Hence, there is a structural problem here. The key to resolving this problem and taking on the legitimate and necessary function of keeping watch on the government is probably to find a model that is economic and provides some other good in its own right, but produces this watchdog function as a by-product or externality. This is how newspapers used to work. They produced this good as a by-product of delivering eyeballs to advertisers. That old model no longer works, however.
- Interestingly, journalists are behaving just like factory workers in dying Midwestern towns. They have a way of life they were steeped in that brought enormous personal satisfaction and enabled them to live the way they dreamed of. Now that model is obsolete and they have to find a new one. This means their entire way of life is no longer viable. That’s a hard thing to accept and indeed journalists aren’t accepting it. Greg Hinz over at Crain’s Chicago Business points us at a Tribune email in which 55 reporters express their indignation over the Trib’s management effectively doing “test screenings” of news story ideas to find out how they play with the public. This didn’t go over well. The journalists said, “Aside from the practical issues, such as the legal and competitive ones, this policy raises very serious ethical questions. It is a fundamental principle of journalism that we do not give people outside the newspaper the option of deciding whether or not we should publish a story, whether they be advertisers, politicians or just regular readers.” These guys just don’t get it. You can’t have journalistic ethics if you don’t have any journalism. I’ll be the first to acknowledge the potential practical problems of this test, but in an industry that is collapsing, you’d think experimentation to try to keep it going would be welcomed. Not by the workers, apparently. They want to cling to their “work rules” and other legacy practices, treating their field as if it were a holy calling instead of a business. Again, just like the manufacturing sector. I said before that the elite knowledge worker crowd shouldn’t be too complacent and condescending towards what was happening to blue collar workers, and that the latte sipping crowd wouldn’t like it one bit if this happened to them. Well, I was right. Journalists are latte sippers extraordinarie and they don’t like it one bit and are going through the exact same process of denial as blue collar workers did. The end result is going to be no different. The entire notion of what journalism is needs to be rethought and every option needs to be on the table.
- Facts (that is, news) is a commodity. In the era of the 24 hour news cycle, newspapers are not going to be able to make money simply telling us what happened. There has to be some basis of value apart from that. And again, I’ll ask, is there any value in content aggregation as praticed by the traditional newspaper? I don’t think so. Google and Yahoo already do it well, and do it for free. Aggregation by itself is also no basis of value.
- The value of being a journalist needs to be re-thought. When I complimented someone on his newspaper writing and said that I thought people like him were part of the future of journalism, he told me the problem was that it took ten years to be able to do that, and how do you pay for that apprenticeship? Thinking about this, I recall an article I saw elsewhere about how experts in all sort of fields were now blogging and writing intelligently on various topics, acquiring significant readership in the process. The question posed was, is it is easier to teach journalists content expertise or to teach writing and journalism to people who are already content experts? We’ve seen the rise of alternative certification programs for teachers that are attacking this very problem in the education field. Rather than expecting a purely educational vocation training, with some content layered on top, we’re finding people who are experts in various fields or otherwise just generally knowledgeable and teaching them to teach. This is something that is probably a big part of any future model. Maybe we solve the ten year problem by letting people spend a decade actually practicing a field, then figure out how to complement that with journalistic expertise.
What the Future Will Look Like
With all this as backdrop, I’ll put out some thoughts about what a viable local print/written journalism business might look like in the future. Keep in mind this isn’t my preferred outcome. I’d rather be able to keep reading traditional newspapers. But that just isn’t reasonable. And of course, the future is highly uncertain. With that proviso:
- The future is online (including mobile device), not print. (Though see below)
- Because of the economics of online content distribution and advertising, it is imperative to have a low cost base. Creating a low overhead, low cost platform is key.
- These new online newspapers will be out of the business of providing facts. Some of this is happening already. Most newspapers have ditched stock tables. But this hasn’t gone nearly far enough. Why bother with box scores in sports, for example? In the online world, if that’s free to aggregate, fine, but don’t spend money on it.
- As Mike Madison put it, the content of local news should be, well, fundamentally local. But the audience is now global. That is, it’s the global audience for local news, including expatriate audiences and others. This means that local papers should be out of the national news business, out of the national sports business, out of the national business business, out of national entertainment and celebrity news, etc. Why do I need a local paper to include wire service reports when I can read them myself online easily? Conversely, there’s a potentially bigger audience for local news than there traditionally was.
- The various departments of the newspaper will fragment. Even if the customer set overlaps, there really isn’t any reason to bundle all the various topics that existing in a newspaper together in the online world.
- The daily “paper” will get out of the business news business. Again, we already see this happening. That market should be ceded to the major national outlets and the local business weeklies. I think those markets should hold up as long as people can expense the subscription cost, which seems likely for at least the higher level employees the advertisers crave. So you get the best of both worlds, a high charge for an online business, and good advertising revenue.
- Similarly, it seems sports should be outsourced. One possible model is what I call the Fox Sports Net model. That is, you’ve got a national organization like Fox Sports or ESPN that effectively produces local web sites covering local sports and featuring local columnists. These could be even part time employees who work as commentators on TV or other things. This leverages all of the existing infrastructure of their sites and global audiences. Plus the national news and “facts” all all right there. How many people does it actually take to cover local sports? Probably not that many. This model could conceivably work for any vertical, including news, business, entertainment, etc. News could become vertically partitioned with a national-local approach. With low enough costs, it isn’t hard to imagine advertising support adequate to pay for it in sports, with ticket package specials, logoed apparel, beer and bar adverts, etc. On the other hand, perhaps in sports what will happen is that the “news” part of it will go away, and it will be like pacers.com where the coverage is sponsored by the team as a marketing expense, with volunteer fan sites like Pacers Digest covering the gaps. National coverage would similarly be sponsored by the league.
- News will be opinion and analysis driven. The rise of talk radio, Fox News, etc. shows that this is a model people crave. People already know the news, they want opinion on it and want to know what it means. Instead of ponderous, studied neutrality, how about a combination of old fashioned reportage, opinion, analysis, and gossip? Ben Joravsky is the only reason I even pick up the Reader these days. It’s not that I agree with everything he says, but you know he’s going to say something interesting and entertaining.
- News organizations will be more overtly partisan. While some might bristle at this notion, the idea of neutrality and objectivity in news has always been problematic. If it totally went away, that would only be a reversion to the status quo ante. There’s probably a longer tradition of overtly partisan journalism than objective. When you read what they used to say about each other in the papers in the 18th and 19th centuries, arguably a golden age for newspapers, it might be more vicious than today, but it was also certainly more entertaining. This also lends itself to a publishing model based on marketing expenditures and support from people with a stake in the message. This seems emminently more sustainable than a model based on a “wall of separation” between advertising and editorial.
- Newspapers in an online world need to adopt online norms, not print norms. Mike Doyle already covered this one.
- Newspapers in an online world need to leverage the power of community and social networks to build relationships between the readers and the staff. This could include things like message boards and comments and reader blogs. Now newspaper message boards have become a byword on the internet. They’ve effectively been left untended with predictable results. If you want to build an online community, it needs to be somebody’s job to build it and watch after it. Even something as simple as comment moderation can radically upgrade the quality of discourse. The average comment page on a Tribune article is purest spew, but the comments on Blair Kamin’s architecture blog are usually thoughtful. Why? Kamin moderates his blog. Why not actually leverage user voting to drive content placement? Get out on Twitter and elsewhere and engage. The Tribune made a big deal about having their folks get out on Twitter. I used to read Eric Zorn (@ericzorn) occassionally, but when the Trib made their Twitter splash I took a peek at his feed, which looked promising, and starting following him. Now I read his column regularly. He’s a great example of the right way to use Twitter. His persona is actively engaged there, not just using it as yet another RSS syndication outline.
- Look for ways to create high value content that could potentially be offered on some type of proprietary basis that lends itself both to sponsorship and to a financial newsletter model of payments. The best example I know of today is the various “Top X, Y, and Z” lists that are published by business weeklies. Perhaps the online newspaper could have a research or think tank arm doing more deep studies than a traditional newspaper. This again also lends itself to alignment with party or policy oriented groups who might finance it.
- Exploit the potentialities of the online medium. In response to my piece about the power of design in cities, and the TED video on newspaper design, someone noted that the problem with design in a newspaper is that it creates a rigid format that automatically excludes things that don’t conform to it. My blog would never be carried in a newspaper, for example. Very true. But while I think constraints can be healthy, there’s goodness in liberation too. In an online world, why should anyone deal with the tyranny of a word length? Rather than trying to hit a particular word count, why not have a broader range and let the topic at hand dictate the length? This might also increase productivity in writers. Online calls for a different kind of editing. Length is less of a constraint, but clearly people with diarrhea of the keyboard like me need editing.
- As I noted earlier, the “wall of separation” between editorial and business needs to be re-thought. As Mike Madison put it, “The explicit, ‘nuclear bomb’ theme is that newspapers need to reconsider their most fundamental truth: That the editorial side should have nothing to do with the business side (i.e., advertising and circulation), and vice versa. Every other institution in Western society is being forced to reconsider fundamental truths; newspapers are no different. Chris and every other paid journalist would say: Wait! If the editorial side knows what the business side is up to, then the paper will pander to advertisers and lowest-common-denominator readers. We’ll see sports on the front page (and sports on page 2, and on the editorial page, and on the business page, etc.). The Post-Gazette will turn into US magazine, with writers writing (badly) about themselves, and celebrities, and society balls, and Survivor contestants from Western Pennsylvania. The paper will ignore or under-report serious news about local politicians and will fail to investigate allegations of corruption in city government. And in response, I’d say: I already read the Post-Gazette every morning. Tell me how the world would *change.*” Maybe there needs to be a line, but it needs to be drawn differently. Maybe we do let people pay to have stories placed in more prominent positions or to pay for coverage, but not to allow them to dictate content. There’s always been a big distiction between “publicity” and “advertising” where the value of publicity is higher because it is perceived to be independent, but the control is less because you aren’t paying. Maybe there’s a hybrid model where you pay for coverage, so you are guaranteed placement, but don’t get full control like you would with an ad. Perhaps some disclosure would be needed. I won’t pretend to have a model fully worked out and it would certainly require a lot of thinking, experimentation, and refinement. Keep in mind, the alternative is likely to end up being a purely marketing oriented approach such as pro sports team web sites unless new revenue streams are identified for papers.
- Leverage an “Amazon marketplace” model whereby the paper includes user or outside created content as well. Huffington Post made a business out of this. As the Reader noted, however, a lot of the business value of Huffington Post comes from SEO optimization on content stripped from elsewhere. Is there a valid business model without this? (While I’m no fan of internet regulation, I do think some controls on malicious content stripping would not be totally unwarranted). I recently read somewhere that the Tribune has something like this in the works.
- Get serious about design. The average newspaper web site is atrocious. I write about design a lot in this blog and will be the first to admit that the design of my blog and web site are not good. (I’m planning to correct that). But at least I’m a volunteer venture. Take a page from the likes of Google or the Drudge Report. Less is more. Ease of navigation, and well integated ancillary functions are king. Think about the interaction model from the user’s point of view. Why are they coming to your site and what do they want to do there? Make that as easy as possible. And of course it goes without saying that your content should be perpetually online with permament links.
- The traditional print side of the business will be treated as a mature, declining business, and managed for cash until it is wound down.
- A lot of “journalism” is going to be citizen-journalism done on a volunteer basis, often by people with an axe to grind. Blogs are already the land of the quixotic crusader, many of them performing legitimate watchdog type functions. The fact that you have to take some of what is said with a grain of salt and realize it is spin doesn’t change the fact that it would appear to be here to stay. I think most people are smart enough to see through a blogger’s personal agenda and judge what is said accordingly.
- Journalists need to bring back the swagger and have a bit of a maverick attitude. I always thought journalists were supposed to be hard edged, free wheeling, and love to hang out at dives like the Billy Goat and get drunk regularly. When I met several journalists, my romantic illusions on this front were shattered. But it got me to thinking. With the dawn of the internet and the online world, this could be the beginning of a new golden age of journalism. This could be real exciting, gold rush stuff. And indeed it is – for the bloggers, owners of web sites like Huffington Post, and others embracing the new era instead of fighting it. Why should the alternative media have the field to themselves? Why can’t traditional newspaper reporters treat this as a liberating moment instead of a moment of defeat? The news is clearly bad in the industry. People are losing their jobs – including a lot of friends of the guys who are left. I get it. I’ve seen it happen in my own industry too. But that doesn’t mean that newspaper reporters have to end up beaten and defeated. Instead, decide to be the shapers of the new order, not the victims. It’s like that John Belushi line in Animal House, “This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you’re going to let it be the worst.” I won’t go that far, but the story doesn’t have to end like this. Maybe it was never really there in the first place, but bringing back the pride and the swagger, the notion of being an elite crew out to conquer the world, liberated from the constraints of the publishing cycle and the need to suppress opinion or conform to a word length or anything else, and adopting a we’re going to go out and win this new territory for ourselves attitude, might be just a dose of what’s needed. The winners are yet to be chosen in this new world order, and I see no reason that today’s journalists can’t claim the title for themselves.
- The reader has to be treated like a customer. Today the advertiser is the customer. That may be true tomorrow as well. But in the new world you also need to treat the reader as the customer. In the old days, when someone had no choice but to subscribe to the local paper, newspapers could afford to adopt a “we don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the phone company” attitude. Well, even the actual phone company doesn’t do that any more. Since it’s my blog and I can write what I want to, I thought I would indulge in a bit of a personal complaint to illustrate what I’m talking about. Until recently I subscribed to the Financial Times home delivery at a price of about $300/year, paid for by me, not my company. I consistently had delivery problems, especially on Saturday, the one day of the week I actually cared about getting a paper since I couldn’t pick one up at the office and there is no place convenient to buy one in the neighborhood. Despite complaints, this was never resolved, so one morning when my paper didn’t come, I called them and cancelled my subscription. The agent told me not to do that and that they could put in an emergency redelivery request. I told her that this had been done many times in the past, and I never once got a paper delivered. But I’d make her a deal. I’d cancel my subscription, and if they got me a paper before the weekend was out, I’d call back and un-cancel. She immediately lost interest in the redelivery request and simply processed my cancellation. It was apparent to me that this notion of a redelivery request was never anything legitimate. In an era of decling readership, how many people writing $300 checks can the FT afford to lose? It’s similar for any paper. Readers are precious and need to be treated like valued customers and community participants, not utility ratepayers.
What does all this leave us with? A small, lean, local news only organization. There are no printing presses. There might not be much of an office either since people can work remote. Things like photography can be outsourced. I’m envisioning a pretty small, nimble staff, similar to a startup type company. Low bureacracy, low overhead. Reporters are personalities, and are out there interacting the community that grows up around their publication. There are a few staff members doing hard core R&D/think tank/investigative work. The major investigative reporting is done with an eye towards brand building. Possibly with a low enough cost base you can sustain this sort of organization with a mixture of advertising, subscriptions, and a public broadcasting/foundation supported model.
There’s also a constellation of other organizations, such as overtly political sites, sports team web sites and online communities, a business weekly, citizen-journalists, etc. What used to be the newspaper is now fragmented, online, much more opinion driven, and with a much looser set of journalistic rules.
Will Print Survive?
What about actual print? Will it survive? I’d like to hope so, at least in some niches. I don’t want to live in a world without newspapers. But probably many if not most won’t survive. The national business papers like the Journal seem like winners. Maybe the New York Times evolves into a truly national publication catering to the upscale audience. But for the average daily paper? I don’t know.
Consider this: the CD is in serious decline as music buying (or not buying as the case may be) moves online. But vinyl has made a huge comeback as an audiophile format. Could something similar happen with the newspaper? Freed from the constraints of the mass market, could an upscale, super-high quality publication make it? This is sort of what I called the magazine model. It seems possible. There always seems to be a backlash against everything. As electronic media has become pervasive, the notion of having a physical object becomes a luxury, and perhaps like mechanical watches, fountain pens, vinyl records, etc., physical newspapers could be marketed as such to a limited audience.
One way to do this might be some type of print on demand solution. The Newspaper Direct printouts are pretty high quality, on standard 11.5×17 paper I believe. Conceivably a top quality color printer with good paper stock could allow people like me who are willing to pay $6 plus printing costs to print our own paper in the morning, or to buy one at equipped news stands. Of course, this means you need someone to do physical layout, which undos some of the benefits of online. But perhaps the original web publisher doesn’t have to be the one to do it. There is a startup publication called The Printed Blog that is looking to do just this with blog content. They actually contacted me about it, which is how I found them. Maybe something like this is a win-win. Specialty publishers will aggregate content from multiple sources into a slick, upscale printed form.
Plus, there is the problem of legal notices. How can you publish legal notices in the local paper when there isn’t one? A question to be asked for sure, but perhaps the requirement to physically publish legal notices provides the start of a revenue stream here.
Again, nobody knows where this thing is going. There are more questions than answers at this point. But as with many industries before it, the newspaper industry is now discovering that the way things have always been done just isn’t going to get it done in the future.
Thanks for reading and I welcome your thoughts as always.