I read this article today about a new group of newspaper executives that have banded together to combat what they see as the misrepresentation of the economic viability of newspapers. That article sums up the main message of this group (whose website can be found here) as:
— Newspapers are very much alive and growing when you consider the print and online audience together. And they talk to far more people than their radio, television and Internet competitors.
— Newspapers have earned the public’s trust because they employ professional journalists to verify news for truth, accuracy and context, and they are usually the first source of local news.
– Advertisers continue to invest in newspapers because they deliver results. They still move goods and services more reliably than other forms of promotion.
— Newspapers remain essential to our democratic system of government, serving as a watchdog against crime and corruption, and a guide dog for information that allows the public to make informed decisions on the issues of the day.
While the thoughts behind some of these points are probably on the right track I cannot help but read this website as a simple propaganda message by newspaper execs. A quick perusal of the groups website reveals headlines like “Let’s Invent an iTunes for News“, “Network television is fading fast“, and “Newspaper Web Site Audience Rises Twelve Percent In 2008“. While some of these articles focus on reinventing the newspaper industry a far greater portion of them focus on dispelling the notion that newspapers are in any sort of drastic decline.
I see many problems arising through this viewpoint of news and what needs to be done to revolutionize it. Instead of trying to summarize all of them I’d rather present what I see as necessary for a “news revolution.”
First, in my mind newspaper execs shouldn’t be putting their time into spreading the message that newspapers are doing well and that there shouldn’t be such worry. Instead, they ought to be focusing their attention and resources on creating and delivering content that actually spreads readership. If newspapers gain readership (either in print or digitally) then advertisers will listen. Don’t tell us that newspapers are doing fine, show us. Prove to the country and to advertisers that people are still interested in reading the New York Times.
Second, what I see as lacking is a mode of digital news consumption that can create significant revenue for large news institutions. I don’t see people as starting to pay for digital news content until they have a device that makes the consumption of this content indispensable or at least far easier than it currently is. Perhaps the Kindle, iPhone, and G1 are a start, and maybe there is a better device in the future, but ultimately newspapers will have to find a way to distribute content digitally through devices that already exist. With these devices that can seemingly do everything around people are not going to want to carry around yet another device to read their news on. Thus, the focus ought to be on newspapers banding together and creating apps for these pervasive devices that can distribute news from a broad base of sources as well as generate revenue. What I’m thinking here is an app with an interface similar to Classics for the iPhone, but one that places subtle and relevant ads among the content. This provides yet another form of advertising revenue for newspapers as well as an extendable and fluid form through which newspapers will be able to adapt to changing digital and economic conditions in the future.
Third, it’s time for newspapers to realize that a daily print distribution is just getting to be too costly. With this in mind their websites and portable modes of consumption need to create more revenue. On this note, the websites of newspapers should become more adaptable to the individual reader. This is partly being done through RSS feeds on many sites, but it’s not there yet. If I read headlines in my RSS reader or on my phone then I don’t really want to visit the sites homepage and see all of those same articles again. I realize that to individualize news to every user would be an immense effort both financially and technologically, but I think that we’ve reached a point with technology and content management systems that this is now possible and through creativity can be made feasible too.
Ultimately it may be that large newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal are just simply too big to adapt to this new age. Perhaps as some have suggested it will be small start-ups and maybe even college newspapers that provide a successful model for digital news distribution. There’s some exciting stuff happening out there and it’s time that print newspapers stopped trying to convince people that their medium is secure and instead started working on spreading and capitalizing on their digital distribution.
Phew, you made it all the way to the end. Those are just my two cents (or almost 900 words…yikes). I’ll probably look back on this in a few months and reword it and wish I had made it a little more solid and clear, but for now those are my thoughts.