weighing in on the death of newspapers

January 11, 2009 ·

in today's weekly blog reading catch-up, i perused numerous stories on the death of newspapers and thought i'd weigh-in myself as it's something i've been conceptualizing since college when i wrote a thesis paper on their death, or evolution as it really should be. i thought it was a good time to revisit it and update with some of the new information.

do i want newspapers to die? yes, in their current incarnation i do, but not entirely. why not entirely? well it's simple, journalism in that form still has a very important place in the fabric of society. citizen journalists (ie. bloggers) are one thing, but the world still needs, as atlantic magazine puts it:

... there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict.
newspapers have arrived at this point solely by virtue of intense hubris in their value and business model, which hasn't changed in 100 years. while keeping their core printed versions status quo, they simply layered on website versions with little apparent thought to changing the costlier side of the business, that was really in danger.

to distill it down, the business model of newspapers is in disseminating information to the masses. what i'm about to say isn't new, but important to the discussion to elaborate later. the main problem with the printed business model is the old 24 hour news cycle which doesn't exist anymore. news is a constant stream now and expected to be by the viewing public. immediacy is key and that doesn't happen with a product that has to lock in their news the previous afternoon, get printed and shipped in the wee hours of the morning. newspaper people need to get over that, and should have a decade ago.

while immediacy is paramount in the news business, the quality of journalism is what should continue to be the hallmark and still has a place in society and media today. it's melding the two into a new product which better meets consumer needs that is their future.

so what did i posit in 2000 as a possible and viable solution? i needn't look much further than my geek side and star trek: the next generation. no, not phasers to wipe out the arrogant old guard newspaper barons, but the data padds (yes, i'm spelling it right).

i'm not saying this is a revolutionary thought, but back then i did think it was forward thinking, but now well outside of the dream phase.

already we have the amazon kindle and a host of other reading devices. some papers even have editions available for it like the new york times. it's a step, but why did they wait for someone else to do it? why did they make their content fit someone else's platform rather than creating their own? newspapers have always created the vehicle for their content delivery, right?

beyond the kindle, here's a couple other emerging technologies that are options as well. forbes took the leap with this new e-ink as a disposable version, so certainly there is a reusable option.


granted, it's easy in hindsight, with the benefit of seeing where technology took us, to see what newspapers could have done. but that's the point, right? these things didn't happen over night, and with a little foresight, could have been tapped into earlier. there are smarter people than myself and if it occurred to me nearly 10 years ago, surely it must have for someone else too.

we are just seeing this technology emerge now because scientists are developing it to find applications for it. had newspapers stepped in to lend some of their considerable resources (although greatly diminished as of late, but there was money years ago) for development with a specific purpose, it's quite likely that it would have come faster. they could already be in market with some derivation of this and we wouldn't be having all these conversations about their demise.

now it's 2009 and we have iphones, other smartphones, kindles, and other personal digital devices. it's infinitely more difficult now to break into the handheld space and it becomes harder to ask consumers to adopt yet another device. if they were leaders though, there wouldn't be this added hurdle. although, with a quality, low cost device, there is still plenty of room for consumer uptake.

what of cost? i would think it'd have to be free, but as this technology continues to come down in price, it becomes much more fiscally prudent. especially if you can lock people into subscriptions to pay the device costs over time. it works for cell phones.

then there's what makes the whole newspaper world go round, advertising. that's right editors, it's not the purity of news reporting, it's the dirty world of selling things. sorry. here lies a tremendous amount of opportunity for marketers to capitalize on that printed publicaitons fall on their face. how so? glad you asked:
  1. interactivity - the ads in the space would no longer be static and thus more engaging
  2. measurement - being able to directly and far more precisely understand the audience and actual readership
  3. linkable - simply being able to click through to an advertiser is a huge boon
  4. current - messages no longer have to be expensively developed and locked in far in advance
  5. lower cost - newspapers are notoriously high in cost because the printing and distribution is passed on to the advertiser, not the reader, and this is a far less expensive delivery system
it probably sounds like i'm oversimplifying this, but it doesn't seem that far of a stretch to me. pretty logical, really. anything's better than death, right? for all their smarts in delivering a superior information product, they certainly are myopic of their own predicament.

i feel compelled to lastly address people's long standing adherence to the notion that the tactile nature of newspapers (and any printed medium) is of benefit to people and something they are willing to give up. i guess it's true so long as people like, cumbersome sized pages, low quality paper, rub-off ink and lower production quality imagery (ie. blurry or just b&w). this is just another old school belief. newspapers are failing because young people are not adopting due to their needs not being met by newspapers. that attitude doesn't resonate with them. they have more important things to worry about than feeling newsprint between their fingers.

update: here's an article that makes it pretty clear this model could succeed. 

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