[Here’s another in a very occasional series of posts suggesting how to change newspapers, all tagged and headlined “NewNews.” Prior posts addressed the need to inspire an imperative for change and suggested turning the newsroom into a classroom to recast journalists’ relationships with the public. In this post, I’ll look at what newspapers do not need to be; in a future post, we will look at what they do need to be.]
Newspapers waste too much money on ego, habit, and commodity news the public already knows. In an era of shrinking circulation, classified, and retail ad revenue — and in the face of shrinking audience and increasing competition — papers have to find new efficiencies and cut these expenses to concentrate instead on their real value (which, I’ll argue, is local reporting).
Newspapers also have to have the guts to stop trying to produce one-size-fits-all products that serve every possible reader and interest in one edition. When they were monoplies, newspapers tried to have something for everyone so they would attract the largest possible audience and assure their status as the marketplaces in their markets. But today, that can be terribly inefficient: What is the real cost of maintaining stock tables for the few readers who still use them in print? More on that below.
And newspapers have to take an even more frightening step: They need to start driving readers from print to online. Yes, that means driving readers from a higher-margin product, print, to a lower-margin product, online — but those margins are artificially maintained because advertisers still value print more than readers do (why else is the print audience shrinking while online is growing?). When reality catches up to advertisers, and when buying ads online in a distributed world is made easier — and that will happen — will newspapers be ready? When that day does come, newspapers will even have to consider selling print as a value-added upgrade to online, the reverse of what is done today.
The point of this exercise is to peel away the layers of the onion that a newspaper no longer needs so it can get to the core of what it really is, what it does best, what it must be to survive and prosper. You can pose the question one of two ways: What do we kill to save money, or what do we kill so we can shift resources to more important things? Whichever, you can’t stay the same and certainly can’t develop new features until you cut the fat and flesh. Mind you, I am not saying that all this needs to be killed. But I am saying that this is a necessary exercise to get to the essence of what a newspaper has to be. So I’ll start the bidding; please add your nominations (and disagreements):
* Stock tables have to go. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey (with whom I used to work) killed most of its stock listings more than four years ago and didn’t suffer at all. In fact, they saved $1 million a year in paper and ink even with added improvements in the business section. It’s shocking — but a telling commentary on the snail-led newspaper business — that only now is another paper, the Chicago Tribune, planning to follow suit, sending people to a toll-free phone service and online for commodity stock prices.
Consider the economics: What is the net profit per subscriber? How many of those subscribers need to cancel their subscriptions before you lose more money than you would if you killed the stock tables? The truth is that you’ll likely lose only a handful of subscribers. But even if you lost hundreds, I have no doubt that the consequent loss of circulation revenue and audience to support your ad rates would be far less than the savings you’ll recognize from killing the tables. That is the essential business calculation of this exercise. Keep those economics in mind when we get to other features. It means that while everyone in the business is trying desperately to maintain circulation, the smart thing to do may be to decrease your unprofitable circulation if it means getting rid of major costs. Heed the cash cow in the coal mine.
* National business news is covered well in other publications, online, and on cable. Can a local paper really compete? I don’t think so, or at least I’ve never seen one do it very well. Do you get rid of it? Probably not. But you can reduce coverage to digests and major news — and if enough papers need such packaging, you can be sure the Associated Press will provide it.
* Local business news is, clearly, part of the franchise. But many markets now have local business weeklies (see American City, with whom I also used to work). I’d examine the coverage of a daily newspaper section vs. the weekly business paper and consider new relationships: Maybe the weekly can provide daily coverage more efficiently and at a low cost if it drives branding and subscriptions for the weekly. If the daily paper doesn’t want to concede the turf, maybe it should create a product to compete head-to-head with the weekly. Much of this depends on how much news is really generated and covered locally — that yields one analysis in L.A. and another in Peoria — and how much ad revenue is attributable to business in print.
Local business news also includes the bread-and-butter lists of promotions and such. I would drive that online, where you can be comprehensive at no cost, where you can publish every damned press release and promotion there is, which you could never do in print. Online does attract business advertising.
* Personal finance is more of a national story than a local one. If you believe you need to provide advice about taxes and mutual funds, you can get it from the wires and syndicates and you can meter how much you buy based on how much ad revenue you generate. If you’re worried about providing the service to readers and don’t get ad revenue, then don’t waste the space and instead just give them links.
Local newspaper business sections are generally unimpressive and so you need to calculate whether — given the current competitive and ad landscape — it is worth investing more to improve them or whether you can provide sufficient service at lower cost.
* Critics are luxuries. This is heresy for me, a former critic and creator of a magazine of criticism. But newspapers don’t all need their own movie, TV, and music critics. The movies are no different in Terre Haute than in New York. Lots of local critics are second-rate. And the truth is that the opinions of the audience matter at least as much as theirs. You can syndicate other critics or you can enable your audience to be the critic. If you’re going to continue to employ critics, concentrate on the uniquely local, like local bands, to help serve a different audience. Oh, and if you’re keeping a TV critic to report on new general managers at local TV stations nobody knew anyway, you’re wasting that money.
* TV listings are a goner. They take up lots of newsprint and don’t work well as more channels are squeezed into a tighter space. Lots of people get their information from their TiVos, cable boxes, and online. And TV is going to continue to explode such that time-based guides will become more and more irrelevant. Now every circulation director I know will faint at the notion of getting rid of TV books and pages but I’ll just bet that some paper will try it and find itself no worse off. I’d recommend providing some highlights and call it a day.
* Movie listings are tougher, for they can be comprehensive and they are convenient. Some papers are switching to paid listings only and that makes sense.
* Entertainment listings work best online if they are comprehensive and searchable — and if they are provided by the venues and not at the expense of newsroom resources. I’d look at this as an opportunity to be more of a gathering place for information and less of a printed feed of repetitive listings: Provide a data base that venues can use to enter data. I’d list highlights in the paper to promote fuller listings online.
* Most sports columnists are, according to sports-fan-friends of mine (I’m quick to caution that I’m not one), a waste of ink. Are you better off paying their salaries or syndicating the best?
* National sports coverage is a luxury … for the guy doing the coverage. Do you really need to send your own guy to that golf tournament?
* Sports agate will be the next to go online, after stock tables and TV listings. Sure, keep listing the details for local teams. But send users online for the national stats. Better yet, provide more comprehensive stats for local school teams online than you ever could in print. Change readers habits to expect the fine print online.
Sports presents interesting challenges. Less than half of the audience reads sports and the endemic ad revenue has never been great (tire ads and … tire ads). Yet those those who read sports are ferociously loyal to the subject. So should papers consider creating separate sports products either online or in print? Would there be sufficient audience and revenue? Should papers concentrate more heavily on local sports, down to the very local level? More on that another day.
LIFESTYLE AND FEATURES
* Comics are a killer. Every time a paper changes so much as a hair on Beetle Bailey’s head, the editor’s office is overrun with angry mobs. Yet comics take up a lot of paper with no advertising; they strictly support circulation. Hmmmm. What do you think?
* Syndicated features like bridge and advice columns, similarly, get no ad revenue and have nothing to do with the local mission of a paper. As older readers die off, taking these habits with them, I’d try to kill these features off.
* Food, home, fashion, and travel coverage get low readership but high ad dollars. I’d concentrate on buying the best features from elsewhere rather than spending a lot on dedicated staff and supplement that with local freelance columns and features.
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL NEWS
Now we start striking the bone. News is news. But I’ll be that half the papers that maintain third-rate bureaus in Washington would do better running news from syndicates — AP, Reuters, Washington Post, NY Times, Knight-Tribune — and covering local pols with local news staffs.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is absolutely pointless to be the paper that sends the 15,001st journalist to the political conventions, where nothing happens and what does happen can be seen on C-SPAN and the internet. Sending your own people to the conventions and other gang-up stories is fueled by one motivation: ego. Reporters want to be on what they think is the big — read: blanketed — story. And editors want to brag that they sent them. But readers don’t give a damn. See my post below on the value and cost of scoops and exclus. Following the mob to the story that’s already over-covered does not serve journalism. It serves the ego or reporters and their institutions. And it wastes money and space and opportunities to cover more important local stories that really matter to readers’ lives.
Welcome to the marrow. Local news is what should matter most to a newspaper (with only a few exceptions). And newspapers need to find new ways to gather more local news. I’ll cover that in a subsequent post. But it’s apparent that if you reduce what you’re spending — read: wasting — on some of the areas above, then you can afford to spend more on the news that matters in your market, the news only you can provide, the one kind of news that makes you indispensible in any medium.
But not all local news is worth the effort. I have long argued, without much company, that one of the greatest wastes of newspapering is editing for prize committees. Writing overlong, show-off series that are aimed at winning Pulitzers and lesser awards is often done for institutional ego over actual service. Tracking meth across the globe sounds cool on a prize application but I’ll bet you that most readers don’t give a damn. If, instead, you took those resources to get rid of a crooked mayor or reform property taxes, you’d be performing a far greater journalistic service. It may not get you awards, but it will get you readers.
And I’d look hard at your local columnists and ask whether they are as informative and entertaining as local bloggers. They used to provide some humanity and voice in otherwise gray, dull papers. Maybe your readers can help do that now. More on that in a later post.
The challenge in local news will be to get more and more local. But that, too, I will cover in a subsequent post.
At the end of this, I believe, the essence of a newspaper is local news with some other services and distractions. It is important for newspapers to boil themselves down to their essence and figure out how to do better at providing that unique and valuable service. That’s when you can start reconstructing what a newspaper — on paper or not — can be and should be today.
: LATER: Jenny D in the comments reminds me that I forgot
* Editorials and editorial columnists. Does a paper really need an editorial board and columnists just to produce opinions when, as the blogosphere amply demonstrates every day, there is no shortage of opinions out there. If you want a true op-ed, perhaps the goal should be to better capture the opinions of the public.
: In the comments, Nellie laments each one of the proposals above and asks the crucial question:
Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of angry and sometimes heartbroken phone calls come to the receptionist every time one of these dubious “improvements” is implemented.
Each represents a reader who blames the local paper for wrenching away a part of their lives they’ve come to depend on.
Paring away the parts of the product that people care about leaves what?
And there’s the real question, isn’t it: What is the role of a newspaper in a community and in readers’ lives. If it is still expected to be all things to all people in a nichey world, I’m afraid the business will not work. That’s why newspapers need to figure out their essence.
: LATER: Editor & Publisher covers this post.