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Newspapers will not save themselves

By now, it’s a given that in a short amount of time (if not already) people in industrialized nations will get most of their information through electronic devices, much of it by way of the Internet. It’s a fact that news “papers” are obsolete as a means of delivering content. At one time they were the most efficient and cost-effective method. They no longer are.

In time, new businesses will pop up based exclusively upon the creation and delivery of content to people electronically, whether through Web browsers or by some other means. I had hoped that newspapers and the people who worked at them would lead the charge. Upon reflection and observation, however, I seriously doubt it.

During their several-decades-long tenure as pseudo-monopolies, newspapers developed a culture based on very strong traditions. The AP Style Manual was their Bible. Ledes were sacrosanct. Headline-writing was an art. Terms like “above the fold,” “cutline,” and “news hook” were the insider currency of the newsroom.

In some cases, the rules and traditions were good. Fact-checking standards, libel precautions, and interview etiquette, for example. In other ways, traditions were wasteful, dull, and not particularly useful to the reader. Foreign correspondents enjoyed huge expense accounts to produce mediocre, little-read content. Reporting and news judgment were subservient to story-telling formulas. Layers and layers of editors turned safeguard into bureaucracy.

Worst of all, much of the content in newspapers is there because it’s always been there. While I might be wrong, I doubt most newspaper editors ever pause to wonder if anyone reads “Fred Basset” or the weather page. They’ve just always been there, and were they to be cut, a handful of octogenarians would write letters. Best leave them alone.

In sum, newspapers and the people who made their careers with them are fundamentally creatures of tradition.

Unfortunately, the news (or rather, content) business is entering an era when traditions will get you killed. The business has gone from zero competition to intense, global, and extremely fast-paced competition. I just don’t think people who’ve made their careers in the warm cocoon of traditional newspaper monopolies are going to survive out here on the cold, hard Internet. They will not be able to turn away from their traditions long enough to visualize something fresh

Enough rhetoric. How about an example?

Take GlobalPost.com. I like this site, I really do. And a good friend of mine works for it. But the entire concept is wrong. Basically, it’s a Web site dedicated to traditional feature articles written by foreign correspondents posted around the world. I would like to see this site succeed, and I’m sure they did their market research and will make some money.

But all the power of the Internet and the backing of a billionaire, and that’s the best they could come up with? The content isn’t nearly rich or varied enough to gain the attention of someone who follows news from a particular country avidly. Neither is it quirky enough to draw in the casual Web surfer. The reporter “notebooks” are updated rarely and are too formal to be interesting.

The sky was the limit, and they decided to focus their resources on safe, predictable, long-form, 800-word, perspectiveless feature stories, of the kind favored by Reuters. This is what you get when a team of former newspaper people launches a Web product.

When a bunch of programmers decide to deliver content, however, you get Patch.com. Funded by some ex-Google people, this site takes a stab at community journalism, I presume so they can sell ads to local businesses that otherwise aren’t interested in Internet marketing. There’s a Patch.com site for three New Jersey suburbs at the moment.

So far, it looks like they have an editor and two or three reporters, and about two-dozen engineers and designers. The news comes in short, significant bits, a sizable portion of it is opinion, and user-generated community announcements, business listings, and reviews play important roles.

This is different, useful, fresh… it just might work.

As more people get online and more money flows into Internet advertising, we’ll see more investment in Web enterprises that actually produce content, as opposed to aggregating (digg) or commenting on (Gawker) other people’s content. Those who figure out how to do this will get rich.

I doubt those people will come from traditional newspapers.

4 Comments

  1. I agree. A few further points:

    1. Newspaper bureaucracy have consistently mistaken trustworthiness for stodginess and boredom.

    2. Newspapers could have learned a lesson from the New Journalists, and realized that the form of newspaper writing was flexible and could be interesting. But they missed it.

    3. Newspapers responses to problems, from Jayson Blair to disappearing ad revenue, has been as bad as the problems themselves.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 05:26 | Permalink
  2. And I disagree.

    For those interested I can share with you an article from the latest Ad Age stating that newspapers in general make about a 30% profit margin. I work for a local paper right now with a circulation of just under 20K. Even in this economy we gross anywhere from 2-3 million a month.

    That’s normal for small papers.

    The big papers have chosen incorrectly, they’ve bet on national news when local news would have been a better choice, but the point is that even the New York Times still makes about 7-8% profit, and when you are talking about that kind of revenue you don’t just “go away” or even transition to something else very easily.

    The small towns that I see with the press associations are still completely ruled by the paper and in my market (which as I’ve said is not different from other small towns, check most smaller towns in the midwest and south) we have 88% of all the households in the region getting our product.

    People are hungry for what we publish, and when we took out the stock page to save some bucks we were almost run out of town, trying to cancel the TV book also garnered about 900 phone calls and 30 cancellations.

    The National news is full of terrible stories about the newspaper industry as is the idea that ad revenue is “disappearing” the fact of the matter is that we are in a recession and ad revenue is not disappearing from print any faster than it is anywhere else.

    We still have the lion share of ad revenue in any market (show me a website that nets 1 million a month in a small market) and we still have the lion share of readers.

    The circulation of local papers has steadily climbed too about 3% or so every year.

    Again, I’m not saying that the group of six papers where I manage the revenue is hitting all the numbers, I’m saying we are holding our own and that is indicative of most small papers in the nation.

    Newspapers are still the most profitable, and until you can figure out a way to get people to respond to online ads in the same way they do to print ads, and care about getting their local news, pictures etc. online, newspapers are here to stay.

    There is not a website I’ve found which sells ads to local businesses and can deliver the same sort of results that print does.

    My monopoly isn’t going anywhere, at least not yet.

    Monday, March 2, 2009 at 20:22 | Permalink
  3. pjk wrote:

    Konrad, holy shit! What woodwork did you come out of? Great to hear from you, seriously.

    The most important part of your comment is the last line: “My monopoly isn’t going anywhere, at least not yet.” Don’t worry, it will. There are thousands and thousands of really smart people with lots of money trying to figure out how to access local, small-scale ad markets like yours with more effective online advertising products, and your comment just illustrates my point: That when competition and disruptive technology DOES finally come along, newspapers are horribly ill-prepared to deal with it and just get beat to death.

    That said, hey! Maybe online competition will never make it to whatever corner of the market you currently occupy. And whatever happens, local news providers are best positioned to put up a good fight.

    But it doesn’t sound to me like you guys have much of a plan for what to do if the barbarian hordes (or hell, just Craigslist) do show up. 😉

    Monday, March 2, 2009 at 20:59 | Permalink
  4. greetings to you as well, where are you at these days?

    My last line, which I know sort of undermines my point was more of a joke than anything else. The point though is that we are staving off the barbarian hordes by doing what we are supposed to do. Craigslist won’t show up here because the market is completely locked down. It is in big cities around the corner, but you place a free listing in our classifieds and they sell.

    I think I also spent too much time talking about my position and less talking about the position of community papers in general.

    I’ve been recruited a lot recently by small community papers and from what I’ve seen my position here is not that different from most small markets.

    Newspapers are still king in small town America, and I think that the main reason for this is that intelligent journalists (yourself and my wife, and Silliman included) are not as interested in covering the local soccer game, and more interested in stories that matter.

    I believe that the national papers, the venue in which these stories that matter have previously been published will go away to be replaced with another sort of media.

    However, I haven’t seen anything that compared to a newspaper in the local market.

    We do have a weather page, stock page, etc. and we have them because we always have in some cases.

    We have a successful model and as of yet it makes a ton of money and circulation grows (when I say we I am talking about small town newspapers). When large shopping centers open in my neck of the woods they take out ads in the local media, and it would not be cost effective for a website, or even advo to break into this market.

    There is a great article I just read about Google being like a predatory bird that jumps into unwatched nests to eat the other bird’s lunches.

    I think that’s very true.

    The difference is that national newspapers have operated on a mostly losing model for the last 10 years and watched while their competition waited and took small steps. Now look at them.

    We are operating on a profitable model and also trying new things (our website is at a half milling a year this year up from 40k last year) but the point is that the ground work is laid in local markets and it wouldn’t make monetary sense for someone else to come in right now.

    They wouldn’t have an easy lunch, rather a bloody fight where they would have to eat a loss for a long time before they turned a profit.

    That’s why I’m so entrenched in local markets. I see them as having their monopolies for a long time, and unless we really screw up, I don’t see them going anywhere.

    Alright, off to work.

    -Peace

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 06:07 | Permalink

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