Newspapers: Do as we say. Read online. Well, pfui!

Remember the days when you’d bring in the newspaper from the front porch and drop it on the kitchen table, hearing a satisfying thunk as it landed? Remember when the newspaper had heft?

The newspaper business is contracting, much like a hypothermia victim losing circulation in the extremities to protect the body’s core. The recession now swallowing the global economy has accelerated that shrinkage.

Newspapers have contracted in physical size, rate of print publication, ability to produce quality journalism in quantity, reputation for credibility, meaningful participation in public discourse — and, of course, revenue. Their corporate leaders say the lousy revenue’s their problem; therefore, either more revenue or fewer expenses will solve the problem. Well, they’re not getting more revenue. Hence, the contractions.

And that is the problem: The newspaper industry doesn’t recognize what its problem truly is. Well, here it is: Newspapers no longer control readers’ habits.

Once the Christian Science Monitor decided to halt daily print publication in favor of a “new, multiplatform strategy,” other newspapers, big and small, followed suit. Some, like the little Kansas City Kansan this week, went Web-only. The Detroit News acted ambivalently, printing on some days but not on others.

Yes, the online moves will cut costs. Newspaper execs like the Kansan‘s general manager, Drew Savage, think this is the future:

We thought maybe this is a trend that could be really viable. It’s the wave of the future. … We’ll be launching a different platform. We’ll have a lot more content than we have ever had. [emphasis added]

More content? How? What kind? The little Kansan, once a daily turned twice-weekly, will cut some of its staff of eight, said Mr. Savage.

Even John Yemma, editor of the Monitor, a newspaper with an admirable record, serves up pablum to explain the change:

The Christian Science Monitor finds itself uniquely positioned to take advantage of developing technologies, market conditions, and news consumption habits that can dramatically increase its relevance, reach, and utility; place it on a sound financial footing; and allow it to pursue its unique mission of providing global perspective and illuminating the human dimension behind international news …

Ditto from Jonathan Wolman, editor and publisher of The News:

We think the strategy can break the cycle of buyouts and downsizing and send us on a path of innovation and growth. And I mean it. With this initiative, we’re laying plans to modernize the daily paper while expanding the immediacy and impact of our digital services.

These newspapers’ expectation for readers is this: Do what we say. Go read the paper online.

Well, sayeth the reader, Why should I?

Readers have known for some time that print-based journalism outlets have delivered less and less for the price they demand. Their daily newspapers have more wire service (and soft feature) copy than local news. Why should readers expect that a newspaper’s “multiplatform strategy” is going to be compellingly better than the print product the company just killed? The contraction in quality of the print newspaper, readers figure, will likely be reflected in the Web site.

The newspaper industry is missing this magic moment. Older, dedicated newspaper readers are searching for new habits to replace the old they’re being forced to surrender. Newer, non-newspaper readers are fully digitized with their Crackberries connecting them to Web, Facebook, Twitter … and so on.

Newspapers are not training readers anew. They’re merely expecting them to behave as newspapers wish them to. That’s as bad a business model as the one that’s now sinking the newspaper industry.

15 replies »

  1. Y’know, Doc, this is one of the most bizzarre issues I deal with. There are people in corporations, not just news ones, who have the idea that it you just put something on line, everyone they want to read it will do exactly that. And in corporations, that includes some of the most Godawful, badly written, laced-with-buzzwords horse droppings you can imagine.

    Why smart people can’t see that it takes creativity and/or strong content to lure people to on-line content is absolutely beyond me.

  2. I’m afraid that the new model will be the Huffington model. There will be lots of information from everywhere and nowhere. I went from reading the Free Press to getting it for the Sports section to reading the Freep online, to visiting for the sports section.

    For all the reasons that Drs. Denny & Slammy and JS pointed out, i don’t think it’s such a good idea to believe that the internet will save us.

  3. The internet is a different beast. Consumers consume content so much more quickly online. The thickest newspaper in the world would get mowed down quickly were it online, due to a user’s ability to search, click, and skip over.

    Consider that many of the more successful internet ventures (email, search engines, youtube, etc) are dependent almost exclusively on user generated content. Online game developers have known of this problem for years. If a game developer were to figure out a way to harness the development potential of its users, that game would quickly take over.

    The problem, of course, is managing the quality of the content. The Youtubes and Googles of the world solve the problem by demand. If there isn’t a demand/search for the item, you won’t have to see it.

    One of the things I think is so promising about Scholars & Rogues is that many of the readers are its writers. In a real sense, S&R relies more heavily on user generated content than your typical news blog. The comment sections are sometimes more interesting than the articles that spawn the discussions. I don’t mean to blow too much sunshine up your bottoms, but if S&R could scale a bit without losing the quality of its content, it might just end up being the future of the way news is digested.

    • …if S&R could scale a bit without losing the quality of its content, it might just end up being the future of the way news is digested.

      We could do that. I guarantee we could do it. We’d just need a little infusion of cash.

      Hold on – I see somebody backing a Brink’s truck up to my door….

  4. Hold on – I see somebody backing a Brink’s truck up to my door….

    Now if that’s your idea of scaling, you’re just as guilty as the rest of the print media in terms of not being able to innovate in a changing landscape. 😉

    Is anyone in the journalism sector exploring micro transactions?

  5. “If a game developer were to figure out a way to harness the development potential of its users, that game would quickly take over.”

    MMOs were born from the MUD crowd, and that crowd would create their own content as they went. Good stuff. But you run into balance issues and the like, if you just let users create what content they want. In fact, look at Second Life to see how fast/large virtual worlds can go with user created content. But in a “game” (as opposed to “place to hang out and do stuff”), you need to control spells, weapons, armor, gear, etc etc. [modern, common] Users can almost never be trusted to handle such a thing.

    For getting info online, you do realize that a lot of papers have been simply regurgitating most of their content from the AP and the like for a while now, right? So printing someone else’s words on paper or pushing those bits to a screen, not much difference. But, for them, it costs a LOT less to run a few web servers than it does to run printing presses, ship paper and ink, pay boys to drop off tree bits.. This can be a huge cost savings, but that doesn’t mean they will go back to actual journalism with those savings.

    I think there are 2 different, but related issues here. One is “paper in hand” vs. “lights on a screen”, and the other is “cost of production”. News became repetitive regurgitated crap as the first cost savings, and now losing the physical tree bits is just another savings.

    Personally, I like getting my news on the screen. I’m always in front of my computer anyway, and you’re less likely to be noticed “reading the paper at work” if it’s a click away from that spreadsheet as Bob walks up. Try one-click-hiding that traditional paper.

  6. @Savanster: Yep, I make my case. MMOs are still experimenting with trying to harness user generated content; for the reason you mention and for the matter of ratings, quality, and overall game context.

    I think news gathering will eventually come from two sources: the APs/Reuters of the world and from end users. I have difficulty deciding which source I trust less. The former will wield tremendous power in terms of stories they can slant and ones they can outright bury. The latter will have difficulty establishing credibility and gaining access to readership.

    It will come down to analysis sites, such as S&R, to help users protect themselves from these increasingly dubious sources as well as to properly complicate oversimplified coverage of events.

    Sites like S&R must be able to find ways to capitalize what they do or secure government funding with guarantees of non-interference. The former is preferable to maintaining the sites’ credibility. Either is preferable to a world without their presence. I visit this site as frequently as I do, not to get press from Sam for my band, but to chew on the wonderful analysis that you provide.

    • So you’re saying you want me to pimp your band less?

      Wish you’d said that a couple days ago before I wrote all that nice stuff about you in my Best of 2008 column….

  7. No way! I appreciate all your pimping. I’m just saying that’s not why I’m here. After your platinum picks, I’m even more curious who’ll take home the coveted S&R album of the year. Apologies to Dr. Denny for hijacking the thread.

    • Threadjacking is not uncommon around here, of course. I’m sure Denny would rather we go talk about this on the actual music post, though….

  8. Regarding print newspapers migrating online, the message is lost on many in Manhattan who still swear by print editions of the Daily News, the New York Post, and to a lesser extent, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

    If those papers went exclusively online, many of these readers probably would not follow. They’d resort to those mini-newspapers that began cropping up a couple of years that are handed out free and condense the news to a fare-the-well (New York Metro, AM).