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How to fix the newspaper industry

Though we’ve been talking about it for years, the fact that the newspaper industry is circling the bowl is something that has seemed to escape many journalists and media academics.  Economic groups are taking bets on the next major newspapers to close up shop or go online-only.  The fact of the matter is that it’s no longer economically viable to print newspapers, and most people don’t care.  That’s not a great equation for saving your business.

The problem is that while newspapers are more expensive than they are valuable, the information they contain is vitally important to the public.  Blogs and on-the-spot citizen journalists pick up some of the slack, but in order to realize the responsibilities of the fourth estate, journalism needs to be a profession that comes with training, depth of knowledge and codes of ethics.

So, while I’m not an expert on the print media industry, these are a few ways I can see to fix the local newspaper industry.

  1. Wean your customers off paper.  According to Business Insider, it costs twice as much to print the NYT than it would cost to send every subscriber a free Kindle.  Entice people to subscribe by offering each two-year subscription or renewal a Kindle, provided they take an digital-only subscription.
  2. Stay hyper-local. If everyone who reads your paper can easily get their information from another (probably better) source, don’t waste money trying to break national stories.  Instead, focus on things that matter locally, provide analysis of the big stories nationally.
  3. Send them somewhere else. People are still reading you for the news, so give it to them.  Provide a few lines of context to breaking stories, and link them to a number of other sources.  Sending them to another newspaper may seem counter-intuitive to advertising woes, but if the local paper can still be your subscribers’ windows to the world, they’ll keep coming back.
  4. Bet your last dollar on digital. Not enough companies invested enough in digital five years ago when it could have made a difference.  Now’s the time you need to double down and make the investment in digital by surrounding your subscribers with the news in all of their digital channels.  At the same time, forget about the news cycle – it no longer exists.  People are used to getting news on-demand, as it happens – getting a paper in the morning and staying uninformed for 24 hours is a thing of the past.
  5. Create community. The dawn of the hyperlocal community is here, and local newspapers are in a great position to build those communities.  They have the infrastructure, the advertisers, and the eyeballs necessary to make it work, but most have failed at creating something that people want to be a part of.  Combine that with the fact that community platforms are more accessible and affordable than ever, and the answer is simple.  Be part local guide and connector, and build up an engaged community, and it may just be possible to wrestle classified advertising revenue back from craigslist and kjiji.

The crisis of the newspaper industry is one of change.  Journalists in many cases view new media as toys, and their most vocal customers romanticize the tactile experience of reading the news as ink smeared on dead trees – the rest of the people don’t care enough to complain – they’ll gravitate toward the path of least resistance and get their news through Google News, blogs, Twitter, or any number of other venues that better suit their lifestyle.

In the end, if the newspaper industry is to be saved – something that I think is highly important to the future of journalism in general, something’s got to give.  Like any other species on the verge of extinction, newspapers will adapt or die.  Those who believe that newspapers’ intrinsic value will keep it around for ever will find themseleves comiserating with the type-setters and other obsolete industries that never saw it coming.

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  1. # 1 smaller (much) papers will become the norm targeted to a particular activity demographic(commuters). this eliminates home delivery.

    #2 – hyper-local is a guarantee of mediocre reporting. you have to break the tight geographic bonds or the whole thing becomes insular and stagnant. the key is finding ways to make more than hyper local engaging and profitable.

    #3 – incredibly important, but a difficult sell.

    #4 – correct now. not correct five years ago. every single paper that would have jumped to digital would have been closed by the time this crisis hit. the internet was not yet a commodity and the costs would have bankrupted companies/papers earlier.

    #5 – community is a bugaboo. create it and all will be fine. create a "sense" of comunity and all you will have is insular snark. a high profile waste of time.

    in addition, the big papers are dead. they are overleveraged and answer to too many people(shareholders usually). focus on the next wave not the backwash of mainstream media.
    you can pretend that you can manage the death of their brands into a viable product. but why bother?

  2. Eric,

    I agree with most of your points, though I'm not sure that investing in digital before the industry imploded would have been a bad idea. Some certainly would have failed, but others would have likely prospered. You're right that there wasn't nearly the wealth of free / cheap tools then – so maybe five years ago would have been too soon, but at least taking the time to understand the social web vs. dismiss it would have been a good start.

    You're also right that most big papers have bigger problems than readership. Overhead, unions, and financial issues are going to kill those, though I'm hopeful that a new breed of professional journalism outlets will rise up to fill in their place.

    Thanks for the comments – very insightful.

  3. Dan

    I recommend reading this for starters: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-a

    The comparison to the effect the Gutenberg press had on the old models of distribution of information is telling; economies of scale made it possible for anyone who could afford to rent time on a press to publish, and now the Internet has reduced the cost to that of an Internet connection. Another point from the Gutenberg case study is that sometimes the old models are well and truly destroyed before something new rises up to take their place.

    But the major problem with this debate (and one the piece I linked to identifies well) is that we're having the wrong debate. We're talking about saving newspapers as though newspapers are essential to democracy, as though they're any different from any other industry.

    Newspapers aren't. Journalism, however, is.

    As a concerned citizen, I might have a personal preference as to how I get my news (mine is, perhaps ironically given the tone of my piece, print) but for the purpose of my engagement in civic life it makes no practical difference how I get that information, so long as I get it. The perception that newspapers are equivalent to journalism needs to die because it is hindering the discussion we need to have on the future of journalism. For a long time, news was provided by town criers standing at the corner shouting 'Hear Ye, Hear Ye.' We don't have them any more. We might not have newspapers in 10 years either.

    Newspapers are what they are – advertising vehicles that connect companies to markets – and print journalism was the means by which they provided a product that attracted those markets. What made this marriage so successful was the essential monopoly newspapers had on banner advertising and the classifieds. This doesn't hold true any more – if you can ship something in a box, you can sell it on eBay to a worldwide market for less than the cost of a classified ad, and local, nonportable goods and services can go to craigslist to accomplish the same principle.

    The result is that businesses no longer have any reason to subsidize your correspondents in order to reach their target markets. They will never have a reason to do so again. The sooner we all realize this is reality, the better off we will be.

    The good news is that once we realize that the question that should concern us is the future of journalism, not newspapers, the solution to the problem becomes evident. One of the very few newspapers that has weathered the ad revenue onslaught has been the Wall Street Journal, whose subscription model has been tried (and failed) by others but is now working for them because – and this is key – they are providing content that people can't get anywhere else. The trend in recent years toward fluffy infotainment or talking-head opinion-fueled broadcasting has done nothing to reverse journalism's problems, because there are plenty of places for people to get entertainment and opinions, especially on the Internet.

    What people can't get anywhere else (or, I would cynically argue, anywhere) is good, pure journalism. If the Ottawa Citizen stopped trying to be all things to all people, gave up its arts and sports (and pet) reporting and devoted its resources to hiring beat reporters who would research and report the hell out of every government department, then packaged that material into a subscribers-only bundle, I am convinced they would thrive. If you worked in government, NGO, or industry in Canada, would you buy this new Ottawa Citizen?

    You're damn right you do. Just like how if you need to know what's going on in the world of business (and lots of people do), you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, or if you need to know what's going on in the world of agriculture (and lots of people you've never heard of do), you subscribe to the Western Producer (which you have also never heard of, but is subscriber-only and thriving).

    There will always be a place for journalism. That place may never again be in type on dead trees. As a former print journalist with lots of friends in the industry, I wish it wasn't the case. But reality is what it is, and no amount of wishing it wasn't will change that.

  4. bud

    Local is actually doing BETTER in a world where regionals are all wire stories and USA Today wannabees.

    If not for Grocery Coupons, the newspaper industry would have been at this point a few years earllier. But it is Craigslist that is putting the final nail in the coffin.

  5. Good points. I recently wrote a piece on my blog about why Newspapers CANT die. A slightly different point of view. Parents will have to agree