These past weeks have seen more bad news for newspapers, and even more since I began drafting this piece. What’s interesting is that the people reporting this disaster, the people who are inevitably on the worst end of this bad news, cannot be blamed for the failure of their business. It’s not like the reporters and staff writers and editorialists have failed at their jobs. The failure of newspapers in America, particularly, is the failure of management to recognize upcoming threats, to confuse print media with online media, and just plain bad management.
In the 1990s, two forces emerged, both of which were direct threats to the newspaper business. The first, of course, was Craigslist. Maybe it was “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” exemplified, but I think it was more. I think Craigslist exposed more than financial holes in the classified advertising model: it exposed business holes. Moving online meant time lags were limited; it meant that anyone, without a subscription, could buy or sell items or service; it meant community feedback — a concept refined by eBay.
While Craigslist was ostensibly tied to geographical region, eBay made buying and selling a nationwide, and sometimes worldwide, endeavor. And by adding community feedback, both parties to a transaction were bound by social rules of conduct that rewarded good behavior, while publicly red-listing poor behavior (this, particularly, is an aspect of the business model that eBay still struggles with).
The flaw exposed was that anyone can do classified advertising, and newspapers, by sticking to the old business model for so long, waited far too long to acknowledge the change. Newspapers waited too long to grasp this.
Newspapers also, weirdly, decided to lock their content behind various walls. We all remember the “registration” process enforced by newspapers before their content could be accessed. The position then was that this would providing valuable marketing data to buttress advertising rates. Of course, nobody thought through the process, and nobody considered the burden placed on the reader — many decided the act of registering wasn’t worth the effort, while others found it easier to provide false information (why was this data needed, why the invasion of privacy?) or to use freely available login information.
It turned out that burden imposed by registering to get to an article — something that the reader, ultimately, might only skim quickly — was not worth the bother. Newspapers websites suffered through these times, and even now, you have to wonder what the powers-that-be were thinking. You know they never had to go through this process, never had to manage the various permutations of logins and passwords and syntaxes “required” by news sites.
It’s only been recently that these walls have dropped, and it’s only been recently that the newspaper world sees the web as complementary rather than predatory (in all fairness, it’s not just newspapers; look at the fiasco NBC made of the web-based broadcast of Olympic events, rumor has it that they didn’t want to cannibalize their TV-only advertisers. Seriously, if true, that goes down in the annals of dumb executive decisions.). The Washington Post is just now exploring ways to integrate online and print operations. That any newspaper has seen the two as separate and distinct for so long is a bit mind-boggling. Just as mind-boggling is the fact that page views on newspaper websites are increasing, yet nobody’s figuring out how to make money.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, online media offers different opportunities from print. It makes no sense to treat your website like a clone of your print property. Reporters get that their jobs have changed, and they’re learning how to present the story in multimedia. Management? I’m not so sure they get it…after all, in today’s world of mergers and corporate parents, you don’t want to “compete” with your sister or brother or mother or father company.
And that, my friends, is the crux of the problem facing newspapers today. Yes, there are declines in ad revenue and subscriber base, but the real challenge facing today’s newspapers is the servicing of debt and contributing to shareholder profits. Rather than serving the purpose outlined in the First Amendment, newspapers become like trading cards.
When a newspaper becomes part of an investment portfolio, meaning the primary purpose of the publication is not, as we like to think, to report and analyze news events, but to help pay down debt incurred by various business entities, it is no wonder that the investment needed to move from a print-only world to a print-and-online world wasn’t there.
All of this means that journalists, in particular, will have to reinvent the local newspaper themselves. It can be done. It will be done. Hyper-local, local, county, state, nation, world, all of these areas need coverage, they need reporting, they need analysis. How this happens might evolve, but the first step to saving the newspaper is trimming the fat: in this case, that means getting rid of the corporate overlords and shareholder greed.
Go back to the news, and you will find the way to saving the newspaper.