Monday, April 28, 2008

Here's your shovel

It's the dawn of a new week, so of course there's another expert proclaiming the inevitable death of the newspaper industry at the hands of the Internet. And another story documenting the decline in circulation.

The decline is real. The inevitability is not.

If you distill the "goodbye to print" argument, it makes one very bizarre assumption: Young people simply don't like to read daily newspapers.

Magazines and Web sites are drawing younger readers, and papers like the OC Weekly draw over 40% of their readers from the under-34 club, so it's not like the readers aren't there.

If you believe that Web sites have an advantage that newspapers simply can't adopt, it has to be the medium itself. Which sounds incredibly stupid. Why would newsprint turn younger readers away? Because kids prefer low resolution text? It's been suggested that young people have some sort of preference for reading from a computer screen, but that doesn't address the persistence of weekly newspapers and magazines. Maybe it's because newsprint isn't colorful? Speaking as a member of the under-34 crowd, I promise that although we might be shallow, we're not that shallow.

The problem is content. There's precious little in a daily newspaper that attracts younger readers, and what little they have usually can't compete with the infinite variety of the internet. Newspapers blaming other factors is taking the coward's way out, by denying their own role in driving readers away. If newspapers face a challenge, it's self-created. It happened because newspapers ignored their journalists in favor of the accountants. They've allowed themselves to become irrelevant.

The Web has only two advantages over print:

- Web sites don't feel compelled to follow an old format out of tradition, or to meet a budget, or for any other reason. Online entrepreneurs realize that if you don't hit your audience, you might as well go home. Lackluster efforts will yield lackluster results, and they don't have the time or money to waste on pursuing a course of deliberate failure. They find their audience, and target their content accordingly.

- Web sites can draw from a bigger audience pool. If a small town daily only attracts .01% of their potential audience, they're in deep trouble. If a Web site does it, they're getting a million hits a month. The Internet enables and encourages highly-specialized, tightly-focused content by aggregating visitors according to interest. It also discourages mass-appeal, generic content, which needs high visibility and some heavy promotion in order to cut through the clutter. ISPs have traditionally captured that market, since they're already positioned as Web gateways. Generic is their niche. There's already an, and an, and a - each with all the mass-appeal content anyone could want. Is Sam Zell or Dean Singleton really willing to expend the kind of money required to take them on, or to develop a partnership? They haven't yet. That's why very few newspaper Web sites will ever hit the big time online, and the single biggest reason even newspaper Web sites aren't taking off as promised.

Magazines and weekly newspapers have always been about targeted content, and as a result, they're seeing less of a drop in circulation - they're losing readers, but it's more a matter of having to share the pie, rather than give it away.

When a magazine fails to target it's content, or position itself competitively, guess what happens?

Its central problem is one that faces all magazines, Mr. Cohen said: "You have to have a unique message."

Newspapers, especially community dailies, have one distinct advantage: Localization. They have the infrastructure and personnel in place to cover local news more cheaply than the big Web sites, and they can do it more thoroughly than any small Web site or blogger. You want a niche? There it is. Your audience is defined by geography, the same as it's always been. Hire some writers and provide content based on geographical relevance. Wire content is fine, but it should never be the bulk of your content.

Almost 40 percent of A1 articles were from wire services at the smallest papers, 31 percent at papers with circulations of 100,000 to 700,000, and less than 1 percent at papers with circulations more than 750,000.

There are other experts that decry this approach, and instead recommend more aggregate news - and judging by today's corporate climate, those voices have won the argument. But exactly how the Long Beach Press-Telegram can differentiate itself from the Anchorage Daily News, or the Poughkeepsie Journal, or the rest of the Internet smog, is a question the experts have wisely avoided answering. The newspaper industry won't have that luxury.

There's only one area in which online has fully and irrevocably usurped territory from newsprint - classified advertising. Newspapers have lost that revenue, and with it a chunk of their historically-massive profit margins. Those days will not return, and newspapers will have to accept the new status quo. Trying to preserve historical profit levels by cutting costs and scaling back coverage and content is exacerbating a completely self-induced malaise. Newspapers can survive alongside the Web, and even thrive, if they're willing to accept the new paradigm and work with it. Invest in your business, stop slashing newsrooms jobs and content, and capitalize on your strengths. There are plenty of talented journalists out there that know their communities, and know what those communities want. The readers are waiting.


Gary Scott said...

The web has three other advantages over print you didn't mention. First, it's free. Second, it's wherever your computer is. Third, it doesn't make rustling sounds when you're scanning through stories while at work.

Len Cutler said...

Haha, point made. But if you look at the "end user" stuff, there are other factors to consider:

Startup costs - The Internet is free, but computers and ISPs are not.

Portability - You can put a newspaper in your pocket and read it in a McDonald's or on the train, without worrying about it getting broken or stolen. It also never runs out of batteries.

The Internet has plenty of advantages, I know. I did the dotcom thing for a few years, starting back in '98. My point is simply that newspapers have their own strengths too, and they shouldn't be overlooked.

Gary Scott said...

Free is the biggest impediment to getting younger readers to pick up a paper. My larger point is that newspapers should stop trying to vie with the Internet. A newspaper has an architecture that the Internet cannot match; online does not expose a reader to variety the way a single newspaper does. If anything, papers should strive to be better and they'll survive. If they try to compete with other sites for a computer users distraction time, they'll turn to shit.

Len Cutler said...

My larger point is that newspapers should stop trying to vie with the Internet...papers should strive to be better and they'll survive.

I agree with that 110% - they're two different animals completely. Although I don't think cost plays as big a role in the decline of print as you do. Maybe it's my Pollyanna nature, but I honestly believe that quality content will always have value.

We both seem to agree that newspapers should play to their own strengths and stop throwing their biggest advantage away.

You and I aren't the only ones making that point, it's just too bad that very few of the top brass understand the fundamentals of what they're dealing with.