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.