saving newspapers – off the top of my head edition

newspaper-stack1Freddie and Will have both written about the impending doom of the newspapers.  I’m not sure I share their skepticism – after all, so long as there is a demand for news, there will be a supply for that demand.  The delivery may change, but the news itself won’t go away.  It may grow more limited with a more limited demand.  Or we may all be surprised and as the transition away from dead tree news takes place, we may see the news organizations coming up with better ideas to increase revenues online or new models with which to distribute printed papers.

It’s not that I’m eternally optimistic, it’s just that I do believe that where there’s a desire for a product, said product usually shows up.  And I don’t see the demand for news changing so much as I see a change in demand for how that news is delivered.  It’s in the delivery that old media is off their game.  People still want the product.

So off the top of my head, here are some ideas that newspapers could try, and some predictions that I think aren’t really so gloomy as my brothers here at the League are counting on:

  • Create community. One huge advantage to online news is the ability to create not just digital copy of a story, but an online community to consume that news, spread it, comment on it, and participate in it.  Online news sites need to take a lesson from blogs and create better comment threads, user profiles, and so forth.  I can’t say it enough, but at this point the experience is as important as the news in many ways.  A good comment thread keeps people coming back, increases page views, ad revenue etc.  That’s one thing I think we do well here at the League but which most modern newspapers don’t do well at all.  Online communities don’t need to replicate Facebook or other social media sites, they just need to imitate the community or participatory aspects of these sites.
  • Targeted advertising. Another huge advantage online news has over print is its ability to target ads to specific demographics and even specific users.  News sites need to take a page from the Facebook playbook, which does ads pretty well in my opinion.  They also could gear content to specific users in a similar fashion.  The technology exists for all of this, but so far I don’t see it actually happening.
  • Be creative with classifieds. Craigslist is free, so how about free classifieds at online news sites?  How about free classifieds in print editions too?  Online you could have classifieds modeled after E-Bay’s a la carte method.  People could upgrade from a basic ad with extras like video, better “top” slots, and so forth. People would have control over the cost of their ads, and could run them for as long as they chose.  Then sell ads on classified pages.
  • Hire bloggers. More and more newspapers are doing this and it’s a good idea.  Bloggers will hilight the rest of the paper, will draw in regular readers, and will network with other bloggers elsewhere online, driving traffic.  People read bloggers as much for their personalities as anything, and giving a newspaper more personality is a good idea.  There’s still a place for Op/Ed’s but I think blogging is where the real future of the opinion pages lies.
  • Don’t restrict content. The Murdoch plan is bad and won’t work.  The door to free news has been opened and there’s no way we’re going back in time on this one.  So open it up as much as possible.   Linking drives up traffic, which drives up revenue.  The share and spread of information lowers administrative costs.  In many ways, this is how news is meant to be delivered – instant, fast, dissected over later.
  • Lower administrative costs. I don’t think newspapers will die, but the news room as we know it will.  Hire techies and reporters and consolidate editors.  Cut out unnecessary layers of management.    Flat news organizations are the future.  There’s no reason that a leaner newspaper or even fewer newspapers can’t achieve the same quality of news we have now.  In fact, we may even get better news, as competition becomes more fierce.
  • Decentralize. More and more news will need to come from smaller, localized news sources which can run on a smaller budget and report as easily online as they do in print.  A lot of towns already have “free” ad-based community papers which are printed and then distributed around town, free of charge.  This model may be the future for mainline newspapers as well – which may become admittedly slimmer in the bargain.  Nevertheless, if print content goes down there is no reason why it can’t be compensated for by a more robust online presence.
  • Centralize. The big papers will have to stop buying up the little papers and focus their content on national rather than regional or local issues as much.  the demand for both exists but not necessarily in the same demographic.  We may very well see the Boston Globe die so that the New York Times can live.
  • Connect. Open source may be the future of print and online media alike.  International news organizations will need to work together through fast, and free exchanges of information.  How this will actually play out is hard to say, but I think we’ll see more and more cooperation between media sources in order to cut costs and retain profitablity.
  • Democratize. A lot of this just boils down to the death of one form of the news industry – not of news itself.  Right now we operate in thrall to the experts – the reporters, the editors: the gatekeepers.  The internet has changed our opinion of “experts” and rightly so.  We want more control, more knowledge, more participation – and we understand that to have this, the old guard has to be replaced.  Old institutions have to adapt.  It’s a little bit like government – the bigger it gets, the less representative it becomes.  If we ever want to be truly represented, then government has to be limited.  Same goes for corporations and especially those trading in information.  So…
  • Die off. A lot of newspapers and maybe even television networks will probably have to die off.  The worst thing we could do in that situation is bail them out.  Let them die off and let those papers who adapted wisely fill the gap.  Let communities start up new papers to fill the void.  Let’s have news co-ops.  Let’s have one-reporter online newspapers.  Let’s have niche papers.  Let’s have papers working together across oceans, internationally, to bring news back and forth across the globe.

In the end, I just fail to see how all this will end in disaster.  Sure, we may miss the mark here and there from time to time.  Cars were certainly an improvement over trains, but we made a big mistake in not building up high speed rail as an alternative.  Similarly, I think news delivery should remain diverse – not reliant on print, or online, or television solely, but some combination of all possible sources.

When we speak about “old” vs “new” media, we’re really only speaking about modes of delivery, at least when it all comes down to basics.  Old media can remain just as important and vital as ever, but it’s going to have to adapt and learn from its junior counterpart.  The two work together now, building off of one another.  There is no reason that partnership can’t continue.  News organizations will have to cut back, but not so much that they can’t provide the news.

The death of Big Music Labels means only the death of Big Rock Stars, after all.  It doesn’t mean the death of rock, or music, or anything like that.  The same is true of the news.

If others have ideas of their own, please chime in.  Thanks.


Via Andrew, Jack Shafer is also optimistic.

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8 thoughts on “saving newspapers – off the top of my head edition

  1. Very true, Mark. Barriers to entry are a problem, but often those barriers exist in an industry like the news industry because the old guard wants them to exist, not because they should or because they’re natural, etc.

    “The Most Dangerous Game” leaps to mind, by the way. Pirate hunting? What next? Shooting wolves from a moving helicopter? (I kid, I kid…)

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    • I’m not sure why I put that caveat in there, to be honest. It wasn’t really relevant. Actually, it more supports your point, with which I think I agree. What this Internets thing has done has been to virtually eliminate the barriers to entry in the field of journalism, both legal and economic. Whether this is a good or bad thing involves some pretty big tradeoffs, but I think in the end, they’re well worthwhile.

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  2. There’s a book out there worth telling your local library to hold for you:

    _It’s Not News, It’s Fark_

    The first 90% is a laugh-out-loud comedy book perfectly suited to airport reading. The last 10% is one of the most serious discussions of the failings of mass media (including reliance upon horrid forms of advertising) I’ve seen anywhere.

    Check this book out. It totally talks about this.

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  3. 99% of most of what passes for news on the internet is parasitic. most of it is commentary on news stories broken by the msm. the internet is feeding on its rotting carcass. the death spiral for newsapaers has accerlated with the recesssion. how many internet sites make money? another problem is credibility. ease of entry is a two edged sword. the availability of a couple of million opinions can lead to a couple million versions of the truth or readers flocking to communities where their own ideas, prejudice or views are reinforced in a virtual bubble. i love the variety of opinion i read everyday but i find that the manipulation of facts can be very high.

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  4. We had an interesting (and long-winded) discussion about this on Gawker the other day, and I’d just reiterate here that newspapers need to do a better job with customer service, which goes hand in hand with acting as part of a community and not an adjunct institution. And I think part of that means rethinking the standard news-outlet website design and using the powers afforded by new media to be more responsive and more communicative in general. It’s pathetic what most papers’ sites’ front pages look like. Any j-school layout instructor worth their salt would be appalled—there’s just way too much going on. The design paradigm there needs to be entirely streamlined. And why the hell aren’t there basic, simple features like a “tip list” link in the top corner of every page, which takes you to a page where (1) readers can submit story ideas and (2) other readers can vote on them?

    And you’re right about community being essential, E.D., but it’s not that hard to do; it’ll spring up if a paper provides and promotes interactive options like comments and forums, and offers a modicum of moderation and maintenance. It is hard to do well, and I think papers would be well served by finding ways to foster worthwhile discussions and subdue unhelpful ones. It’s pathetic, frankly, the unmoderated drivel that infests the comment sections of a lot of papers’ sites. It’s also pathetic that more reporters and editors don’t engage with the intelligent comments, either by commenting back or in a new post. There’s still a very old-media mind-set among many journalists using new media: Once you file the story, you’re done with it.

    And I see no reason we couldn’t scrap the old inverted-triangle news story nearly entirely and replace it with blog posts. Blogging is where the future of opinion writing lies (or where the present of it lies, actually), but it can be where the future of harder news lies, too.

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