What if they didn’t give a party and nobody cared?

Amy Webb talks today about newspapers getting rid of entire sections — and they hear no complaint, no protest. She takes this opportunity to wonder why we’re not spending more on R&D. Well, I’ve long agreed.

But I take something else from her observation, something more ominous: What if papers kept killing sections and nobody cared? Do they care about the newspaper? Or will there be good news in there — you finally kill something they do care about? Get rid of the business section, as the Baltimore Sun just did, following the example of other papers: Yawn. Most local business sections suck anyway. Get rid of the features section as another paper did: Silence. That one surprises me, which is why I think there’s a dangerous message in that. So what if you got rid of sports? People may be getting all they want online and on TV. National? International? Well, I’ve been arguing that papers should no traffic in commodity news anymore, that they should do what they do best and link to the rest. My very local paper does a crappy job with national news so I think they shouldn’t bother.

Local? Well, if a paper killed that and nobody cared that’d be time to lock up and turn off the lights. I’m hoping — praying — there’d be an outcry.

Or maybe there’s good news in what Amy reports: Papers can get rid of their commodity news and crappy sections and can concentrate their precious and dwindling resources on what matters, which I still believe is local reporting. Maybe.

  • Gord

    Just don’t kill the crossword or the TV page.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    TV page? Gone. Use your cable box or buy TV Guide (while you still can). Newspapers aren’t in the TV business and they’re bad at it anyway.

    Crossword? I think it’d be cheaper to fax it to you than to print it.

    Time to boil the thing to its essence. It’s not a TV company or a game company. It’s a local news company. Either that has market demand or it’s doomed.

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  • http://www.mapgoblin.com Hassan Hodges

    good, scary post.

    I wonder if it’s statement about the medium more than the content. That people are accepting print as something that is what it is, not something that can change.

  • http://montrealgazette.com/technocite Roberto Rocha

    A business-minded friend I know said that if he owned a local paper, he would fire most of the staff and keep the high-value reporters and pay them a lot: local sports reporters, arts critics, city hall and legislature reporters, and a few investigative journos. I’m afraid someone will listen to him.

  • http://annbrocklehurstjournalism.blogspot.com AnnB

    Go local is a pipedream.

    If there was truly such a booming market for local news, don’t you think it would already have been exploited?

    Whenever I hear these local news call-to-arms, I always want to ask, “And, precisely what are the stories that are currently going uncovered?”

    While, I do think there are opportunities for local newspapers to expoit in covering services online, I’m not buying this idea that there’s some uncovered cache of local news that people are hungry for.

    In fact, most decent newspapers do cover local news pretty well with perhaps minor room for improvement.

  • http://coastsider.com Barry Parr

    Agreed that most local business sections are dreadful. Including those in towns where the local business section could be, well, exciting. Even when the San Jose Mercury News was fat and packing in Pulitzers — and sitting in the middle of many of the most important business stories of the century — its better-than-average business section was mostly about who had issued press releases the day before.

    Most local business sections read like Chamber of Commerce newsletters, and this symptomatic of the lack of analysis that characterizes the way most newspapers continue to cover their communities. I’m getting information on what happened yesterday or last week, but not a lot about why it’s happening.

  • http://www.mydigimedia.com Amy Webb

    I agree that not all local business sections read like Den of Thieves… getting rid of staff isn’t suddenly going to make copy any more compelling. It’s not that readers don’t want local news or local information. Believe me, they do. Look at the success of Citysearch sites, alternative weekly newspapers or even the Metro (in markets where it’s available).

    You see the problem is with publishers. They should have been working towards a more solvent business model a few decades ago. But news organizations tend to be huge, bureaucratic nightmares where the only path to change is incremental. In order to make the numbers work, lots of companies are cutting back everywhere they can.

    If the community isn’t crying foul it may be because news orgs aren’t willing to listen. Or worse, newspapers have so inundated readers with stories of cutbacks and strife that readers no longer want to hear the same-old, same-old.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Amy,
    I’d set the blame first at the feet of editors whose job it is to serve those communities, which requires them to listen and adapt, which they didn’t do. We’ve always put out a business section so we always will, goes the logic. Well, when we have WSJ.com and Bloomberg.com, why? Doesn’t that necessitate change? When I ran local sites, I wanted to get an announcement tool built so everyone could announce their new jobs and such, under the logic that local business can be a community or part of one. That wouldn’t have worked in print. I think it would world online. (Sadly, I never got it built.) That’s a tiny example. We’re saying the same thing — we need innovation, invention, experimentation in both products and models. But I also read in your post that we may be too late for some of this if these cuts are met with shrugs.

  • http://blackblueandredallover.wordpress.com/ Paul Evans

    “Go local is a pipedream.”

    In Jeff’s backyard there is Baristanet (www.baristanet.com), a pipe dream that has garnered some vVC money so that it can export what’s it’s smoking to other NJ towns.

    I have also heard the the Morristown Record is successfully rolling out profitable hyper-local sites, parsing up its coverage area into neighborhood-sized chunks.

    It isn’t just about the stories, as I’m sure the people at Baristanet will attest. It is about the community. Can you allow it to define itself, can you help it find its voice? Can you provide some stories, some attitude, something useful that readers and advertisers can congregate around?

    Many newspaper hyper-local sites simply try to zone the web. There is no community. There is no voice. There is nothing necessary. What a surprise — there is no audience.

    Here is reality: Most newspapers have no where to go but local. National, regional, even statewide news is commoditized in most cases and there is no advertising model to support it. If there isn’t anything local or they can’t figure out how to tap it, they are just done. Done. Done.

    That isn’t a dream. For those of us working in newspapers its our nightmare.

  • http://blog.syracuse.com/newstracker Brian Cubbison

    Let’s start at the other end and ask, “Why print anything?” If you were starting a paper now, what would be on paper? Perhaps the answer to that is … nothing, for those who are never coming back … and … everything, for that part of the community that still wants a paper.

    Otherwise, the marketing plan for most newspapers seems to be to throw things overboard. There’s nothing in the paper anymore. The newspaper is dying, they say, yet these newsrooms are publishing instantly, constantly, in a variety of media and platforms. Maybe the best slogan is, “More news, less paper.”

  • http://canthook.com Harl Delos

    It wasn’t a new book when I read it about 1970, so I suppose it discussed a long newspaper strike in the 1950s. They did a poll, asking what readers missed most, and of the 10 top items people missed, 9 of them were types of advertising. Fashion advertising, grocery ads, used car ads, movie ads, etc.

    The only non-advertising item? Obituaries.

    In the early 1980s, USA Today came out, and newspaper responded in some good ways – using better quality paper, better quality printing, and using full color – and in some bad ways – such as making news more generic, less local.

    I was a newspaper publisher back then, and I’m glad I am retired, but if I were to go back to work, publishing a newspaper, I’d publish weekly, and
    it’d look sorta like a city magazine. There’d be a lot of local editions, each one with a circulation of no more than 20,000 or so; it doesn’t make sense for a barber shop to advertise to a million homes. There’d be a really strong emphasis on high school and junior high sports, and on the activities of 4-H, Scouts, and church groups. And yes, there would be obituaries, printed nicely for the people who clip them and save them in the family Bible.

    I’m not sure that there’s much future for that kind of a newspaper, but there’s definitely no future for any other kind.

  • http://annbrocklehurstjournalism.blogspot.com AnnB

    “Most newspapers have no where to go but local. National, regional, even statewide news is commoditized in most cases and there is no advertising model to support it. If there isn’t anything local or they can’t figure out how to tap it, they are just done. Done. Done.”

    Hmmm, just because everyting else is done — which I don’t believe it is — doesn’t mean local is the answer. There are always openings for someone who offers something different or original be it local or international.

    I notice even Jeff who used to be completely gungho on local now says local is what “maybe” matters.

    As for the alt-weeklies, that sort of makes my point. Two decades ago, they saw a void and pretty much filled it so what’s left to fill now?

    Certainly there are badly served areas. Local search, for example, where I believe newspapers, with their archives and journalistic know-how, could be a force and hammer the directories.

    And there will always be a demand for local news even though I don’t think there’s way more local news demanding to be covered.

    Re Barista Net, it’s done some fun stuff and certainly been livelier than a lot of local newspapers. I’d love to see it turn a profit or is it already?

  • http://blackblueandredallover.wordpress.com/ Paul Evans

    According to a Dec., 2006 blog:

    “Starting with just a few thousand dollars mainly going for promotional t-shirts and mugs the site has grown to now pull in profit. Through all local advertising and classified ads, Barista has pulled in a surprisingly large client base without too much solicitation.”

    From: http://www.editorsweblog.org/analysis/2006/12/baristanet_local_journalism_wi.php

    A Winter 2007 Nieman reports piece on Baristanet is also interesting, as it explores (in comparison) the failings most newspapers experience when venturing into the hyper-local realm.

    http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/07-4NRwinter/p64-george.html

    As for local news waiting to be covered, I think that fails to miss the point of what will or won’t make hyper-local a success. It isn’t just about news. It is about community. The best hyper-local sites resemble small town papers from 50-100 years ago more than modern mass-media bastions of journalism. But most important, they have the tools to allow the community to be part of the process. The best also are run by people who know the community and are known by it — much like those old time, small town newspaper editors.

    But even for bigger papers, the opportunity many seem to be missing is to focus — online at least — on those things that few others (if any) can provide. Like high school sports coverage. Not HS Sports as part of some bigger thing, but pulling all sports resources and putting them all on high school sports. Who else in the community is covering that? How many places can one get better and more in-depth stories on anything college and above? Heck, even if there was no one other than ESPN that is more competition than all but the biggest newspapers can hope to hold a candle to.

    Yes, there are opportunities outside of local. But probably not in the same way as there has been in the past. Most newspapers can’t afford a state bureau anymore, much less a Washington reporter. However, as Jeff has reported, some newspapers are coming up with innovative news networks to avoid homogenized AP coverage. I would bet there will soon be the opportunity in many state capitals for a couple of reporters to set up a statehouse news web site and then “syndicate” stories to newspapers.

    But the greatest untapped source of advertising remains local, small business. The ultimate lure of hyperlocal is those dollars that few others can get. The problem for many traditional newspapers is that they focus on those dollars (albeit clumsily) first and can’t seem to figure why finding an audience matters more.

  • http://annbrocklehurstjournalism.blogspot.com AnnB

    “As for local news waiting to be covered, I think that fails to miss the point of what will or won’t make hyper-local a success. It isn’t just about news. It is about community. The best hyper-local sites resemble small town papers from 50-100 years ago more than modern mass-media bastions of journalism.”

    Yes but we’re not living in the small towns of 50-100 years. People don’t need or necessarily want to find community where they live when they have so many other web community options available to them. Community doesn’t necessaril mean local. Personally, I prefer clever verticals to hyperlocal.

    Anyway, enough said by me. Thanks for the Barista Net links. And agreed that there are local adverising pportunities — along with non-local.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    From you stint with a group of local newspapers, Jeff, you know that high school sports is the one topic that lights up users/readers of local papers. In my hometown of Nashville, the Gannett-owned Tennessean is, well, don’t get me started. However, their sports page is still the only must-have section in the paper. The business is ridiculously bad that I’m sure no one would complain if they killed it (perhaps they have, and I haven’t noticed). An online competitor has crushed them in general local news and business coverage. Like other Gannett papers, they are now trying to play catch-up with having lots of neighborhood and special interest blogs along with lots of reader-shared photos and reporter videos. Don’t know where all that leads — but they lost me years ago — except when it comes to sports.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Rex,
    Right on. But from a business perspective, in some markets, as few as 20 percent of newspaper buyers read the sports section. The one-size-fits-allness of it is not sustainable economically, especially as costs rise. Separate sports pub? Or just a sport site? what do you think?

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