Rupert’s warning

Rupert’s warning

: Rupert Murdoch gave an important speech — and warning — to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington today, telling them that papers are whistling in their own graveyard and recommending some solutions, including even blogs:

Scarcely a day goes by without some claim that new technologies are fast writing newsprintís obituary. Yet, as an industry, most of us have been remarkably, unaccountably complacent.

I have the text of the speech because — full disclosure — through a friend, I tried to help the person who was helping write the speech. So, yes, you’ll hear echoes of familiar themes in the speech. (Somebody just smashed me in email for linking to something without acknowledging I was quoted so I’ll add: I was flattered to be quoted in the speech.)

I was impressed to see Murdoch giving this warning to the nation’s august editors — and also impressed to see him embracing new ways to do things, including citizens’ media. He starts by acknowledging that he and the assembled sages aren’t the ones to reinvigorate news:

Like many of you, Iím a digital immigrant. I wasnít weaned on the web, nor coddled on a computer. Instead, I grew up in a highly centralized world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few proprietors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know. My two young daughters, on the other hand, will be digital natives….

The peculiar challenge then, is for us digital immigrants ñ many of whom are in positions to determine how news is assembled and disseminated — to apply a digital mindset to a set of challenges that we unfortunately have limited to no first-hand experience dealing with.

We need to realize that the next generation of people accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or any other source, have a different set of expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from, and who they will get it from.

He quotes scary stats and conclusions from Merrill Brown’s excellent report for Carnegie.

What is happening right before us is, in short, a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. They donít want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. They donít want to rely on a God-like figure from above to tell them whatís important. And to carry the religion analogy a bit further, they certainly donít want news presented as gospel.

Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe, to offer a different angle.

He uses blogs as the evidence of this and he then turns to newspapers’ reaction to this new world:

In the face of this revolution, however, weíve been slow to react. Weíve sat by and watched while our newspapers have gradually lost circulation. Where four out of every five Americans in 1964 read a paper every day, today, only half do. Among just younger readers, the numbers are even worse, as Iíve just shown.

I like his explanation of how this could happen even in the face of such Titanic market trends:

There are a number of reasons for our inertness in the face of this advance. First, for centuries, newspapers as a medium enjoyed a virtual information monopoly ñ roughly from the birth of the printing press to the rise of radio. We never had a reason to second-guess what we were doing. Second, even after the advent of television, a slow but steady decline in readership was masked by population growth that kept circulations reasonably intact. Third, even after absolute circulations started to decline in the 1990s, profitability did not.

But those days are gone. The trends are against us.

So unless we awaken to these changes, and adapt quickly, we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans or, worse, many of us will disappear altogether.

He scolds the editors for not taking full advantage of the internet:

We have not, as an industry, embraced digital technology and the Internet in the way Ö or to the extent Ö that we should, and must….

I venture to say that not one newspaper represented in this room lacks a website. Yet how many of us can honestly say that we are taking maximum advantage of those websites to serve our readers, to strengthen our businesses, or to meet head-on what readers increasingly say is important to them in receiving their news?

Murdoch says he is optimistic about the news business because the public, including the young, want news.

The challenge, however, is to deliver that news in ways consumers want to receive it. Before we can apply our competitive advantages, we have to free our minds of our prejudices and predispositions, and start thinking like our newest consumers. In short, we have to answer this fundamental question: What do we ñ a bunch of digital immigrants — need to do to be relevant to the digital natives?

He says these new natives want news on demand, they want news to be relevant, they want a point of view (hello, FoxNews), they want news that affects their lives, they want the option to get more information and points of view, and they want to join in the debate. Make “they” “we.”

He talks about Fox and FoxNews and the tabloidization of British papers as responses to audience demand. He doesn’t make the further point that I think needs to be made: That FoxNews, with its new way to turn news into conversation and rely less on expensive produced pieces, represented an economic restructuring of the TV news business and (a) that ain’t over and (b) the print news business needs just that sort of restructuring. He also says that newspapers need to be destinations; I disagree and think they need to be waystations, starting points, perhaps.

And then he goes to the blogs:

But our internet site will have to do still more to be competitive. For some, it may have to become the place for conversation. The digital native doesnít send a letter to the editor anymore. She goes online, and starts a blog. We need to be the destination for those bloggers. We need to encourage readers to think of the web as the place to go to engage our reporters and editors in more extended discussions about the way a particular story was reported or researched or presented.

At the same time, we may want to experiment with the concept of using bloggers to supplement our daily coverage of news on the net. There are of course inherent risks in this strategy — chief among them maintaining our standards for accuracy and reliability. Plainly, we canít vouch for the quality of people who arenít regularly employed by us ñ and bloggers could only add to the work done by our reporters, not replace them. But they may still serve a valuable purpose; broadening our coverage of the news; giving us new and fresh perspectives to issues; deepening our relationship to the communities we serve. So long as our readers understand the distinction between bloggers and our journalists, and so long as proper safeguards are utilized, this might be an idea worth exploring.

To carry this one step further, some digital natives do even more than blog with text ñ they are blogging with audio, specifically through the rise of podcasting ñ and to remain fully competitive, some may want to consider providing a place for that as well.

And with the growing proliferation of broadband, the emphasis online is shifting from text only to text with video. The future is soon upon us in this regard.

Next, he turns to advertising:

Someone whom I respect a great deal, Bill Gates, said recently that the Internet would attract $30 billion in advertising revenue annually within the next five years. To give you some perspective, this would equal the entire advertising revenue currently generated each year by the newspaper industry as a whole.

He acknowledges the lasting decline in classifieds and says that newspaper companies have to come up with new ways to better target advertising (no more one-size-fits-all, in other words).

He says that technology isn’t the problem. Attitude is.

What I worry about much more is our ability to make the necessary cultural changes to meet the new demands of the digital native. I said earlier, what is required is a complete transformation of the way we think about our product and the Internet itself. Unfortunately, however, I believe too many of us editors and reporters are out of touch with our readers. Too often, the question we ask is ìDo we have the story?î rather than ìDoes anyone want the story?î

And the data support this unpleasant truth. Studies show weíre in an odd position: Weíre more trusted by the people who arenít reading us. And when you ask journalists what they think about their readers, the picture grows darker. According to one recent study, the percentage of national journalists who have a great deal of confidence in the ability of the American public to make good decisions has declined by more than 20 points since 1999. Perhaps this reflects their personal politics and personal prejudices more than anything else, but it is disturbing.

This is a polite way of saying that reporters and editors think their readers are stupid. …

Newspapers whose employees look down on their readers can have no hope of ever succeeding as a business.

The next question will be: Who’s listening?

: Here’s E&P’s coverage. The FT’s coverage (behind a damned pay wall). From Australia’s The Age.

Here’s the full text of the speech.