News gathering is expensive. But newspapers, for the most part, have not been able to transform online models into paid models.
“What is going to happen to newspapers?” A group of friends asked this question as we attended a Shakespeare festival together. My friends would mostly qualify as senior citizens from a generation of newspaper readers. They included the chairman of the Board of Education, a retired municipal bonds expert and university professor, a stockbroker, a homemaker who now reads newspapers regularly since her children have left the nest, and others — all of whom have been newspaper readers for most of their lives. They asked me the question because I'm a former newspaper publisher and the CEO of a newspaper software company.
The question came up because they recognized that their own newspaper reading habits have changed. With one exception, they have moved online to get some of their news. They were also fully aware that newspapers are in trouble. The connection between their changing patterns and the state of the industry was not lost on anyone.
I think about the future of our medium all the time, and have some real-life answers. I told them that in order for the print editions to survive, newspapers will need to turn into something more like magazines — full of color photos, graphics, and in-depth analysis. Breaking news will be delivered online, and newspapers will survive as the record of their communities. The print edition will need to cut back from a daily delivery to fewer days per week.
“Then why aren't newspapers changing like that now?” I was asked. The question implied that either my forecast was off the mark, or that newspapers weren't moving fast enough, if that indeed was their future. I just wish I had a simple answer to their follow-up questions. As they say, it's complicated, but I tried.
Newspapers have been so involved in cost-cutting in a race with ad revenue declines that big transformational strategies have remained on the shelf. It seems that the cost cutting has been so deep, that the quality of many newspapers has declined; graphics have been reduced, watchdog journalism has suffered, and analysis is often left to blogs and other non-newspaper sources.
The investments in web technologies have definitely expanded the reach of newspapers, but have done nothing to improve the quality of journalism. In many, many cases, the folks with the skills to provide the quality have been pushed aside as “print dinosaurs,” while web techno-gurus have taken precedence in newspaper hierarchies and in funding. So often, web teams have separated themselves from their print counterparts, as if web content is beyond the skills of print journalists.
The biggest transformational challenges are still unaddressed at most of our newspapers. Ad revenue is moving toward targeted advertising models — and newspapers have not transformed into targeted advertising vehicles. We are getting very little of the targeted advertising pie — though it keeps growing even during a recession, with Google as primary beneficiary.
News gathering is expensive. But newspapers, for the most part, have not been able to transform online models into paid models. Those who are boldly trying paywall approaches are actually undermined by other news media companies who try to get a competitive advantage by keeping their online content free, even if they lose money doing so. Raising the level of the value that they offer, so people will be more likely to pay, is an approach that is subverted both by cost cutting, and by newspapers doing their own web-oriented software development. Neither cost cutting nor software development contributes to more valuable content.
Our loyal long-time readers want us to change in order to survive and thrive. Structural changes are needed for our industry to return to financial stability. We need to embrace new transformational technologies like cloud computing. Print and web publishing need to become synergistic, not competitive with each other. We need to solve the paid content conundrum and improve quality too. And newspapers need to get more than our share of targeted advertising because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, “that's where the ad money is.”
We can also heed advice from another Will — the one whose words still manage to delight and challenge a global audience. Shakespeare reminded us though Rome's great warrior, Coriolanus, that “Action is eloquence.” We need to take action. Our loyal readers expect it and deserve it.