A new model for LOCAL NEWSpapers
: Try this on for size:
Imagine a newspaper that is only local news — no sports, no business, little or no entertainment, and commodity national and international news treated as the I-saw-that-already commodity it is: only local news.
Why? Because we need to seriously consider new business models for journalism. See Murdoch’s speech yesterday. See Merrill Brown’s Carnegie report. See a hundred posts about media here. And see the two posts directly below about editors not even noticing the revenue that supports their enterprises disappearing and about putting out one-size-fits all products. We need to stimulate radical discussion of radical new views to rethink this business before it’s rethought without us. This is just one example, an exercise that leads to a point:
As I said in the post below, by my recollection, some readership studies say that only about 20 percent of newspaper readers read sports sections … and those pages get unimpressive ad revenue aside from tire ads … and they add tremendous cost to editorial budgets … and there are new competitors on TV and especially online that are more current, more animated, more complete, more conversational than a piece of paper can ever be.
In the old, one-size-fits-all view of news, you had to have a sports section to vacuum up as large an audience as you could to sell that mass audience to your advertisers, including classified advertisers. But now classified advertisers are finding less expensive ways of transacting their business online. And retail advertisers are finding new ways to target efficiently online. So one-size-fits-all is not a model for growth, to put it gently.
So let’s start by killing the sports section and eliminating all the cost that goes with it. OK, so some portion of those readers will leave but I’ll bet that at the end of the day, the paper will be more profitable and will be able to devote more resources to local news.
Let’s keep going: Business sections aren’t really local. Stock tables cost a fortune in paper to publish and most of America is now online and can get more current information there with targeted advice and functionality a piece of paper can’t deliver. One newspaper down the road eliminated its stock tables and found little ill effect on circulation while saving a fortune in paper. You could argue that you still need business news and if it’s really useful local news, ok. But as for the national biz news, the audience can find more of it online. So don’t bother. Kill the business section and you’ll eliminate cost — editorial and paper — and not reduce the audience or advertising base much.
Next: entertainment. OK, you want local listings, you say. But those are really better handled online as well: They are searchable and up-to-the-minute and are not limited by space on paper. You want movie reviews? OK, but do you really have to have your own reviewer in every town in America? Why not buy a syndicated reviewer for much less? Or push people to online for entertainment reviews and listings. TV listings? I haven’t used them in print in years (and I used to write for TV Guide); I use the cable (or occasionally online). So get rid of them. You can save a good deal of editorial and paper cost.
Now to lifestyle news: Outside of certain cities, there isn’t much that’s truly local about food. Chicken still tastes like chicken. And you do want to support grocery advertising, but that’s fluid. So syndicate the content you need to support the advertising and move on.
How about national and international news? Well, that’s a commodity. People already know it from the internet and cable news and sending the 15,001st reporter to the political conventions instead of just picking up wire stories really doesn’t add much or justify the expense or ego involved. So let the AP give you an already-edited digest of national and international news, if you want. Or if you’re Gannett, produce it all on one desk in Washington. Then get rid of the wire desks and save more money.
Editorials? If you own your bully pulpit, you’ll want to use it. A blogger should understand that! But then go get the opinions of your neighbors from what they’re already writing and quote it in the paper if you want — and get rid of the columnists. That’d save money and aggravation.
And what are you left with in this exercise? You are left with your core value: local news. That’s not a commodity. That’s a uniqe value. And that’s the point.
So now take some of your savings — net savings after, yes, you do lose some sports fans and elderly mutual-fund owners — and plow it into reporting. But find new and efficient ways to get more local news: Harness the power of your public and get news and information from new sources that you help support with information, promotion, training, trust, and most of all revenue. Pay the person who covers the school board if the audience agrees it’s valuable. Become the meeting place , as Hugh McLeod says, for everything local, all the news that matters to you — and the conversation about it. Become a better local news operation than you’ve ever been with more news and more reporting and more engagement from the public you serve.
I’d argue that you could cut all that stuff out of the old, one-size-fits-all paper and even raise your price because it would be unique and valuable.
Then you could ask the next question: Do you still want to print it on paper? For now, yes, because advertisers are slow to adapt and so there’s still more money in print. But the public is not slow to adapt, so you must adapt to them and give them this valuable local news where, how, and when they want it; don’t be limited by the press and its schedule.
So you become the great aggregator and distributor — and, yes, editor — of local news that is necessary to the community.
That’s just one model, for argument’s sake — and I look forward to hearing your arguments about it. We’re seeing others with Dan Gillmor’s new effort to support independent journalism, with Backfence, with others that are bubbling up out there. I have no idea what will work and what won’t. No idea. But I do know that we need to consider new models and try them and invest in them or else someone else will: What Craig Newmark did to classifieds — and the newspaper business, in turn — others will do to the rest of news. This isn’t just about newspapers; TV news has already undergone the beginning of a restructuring (see FoxNews v. CNN) but that isn’t over yet, not by a long shot: See Bob Garfield’s piece, which I mention again because it’s now online. This is what I meant the other day when I replied to Jay Rosen’s post firing me from panels to hear new people who are actually doing it: Exactly right. There are new models bubbling up everywhere and now is the time to find some to embrace.
: LATER: Terry Teachout takes this and Murdoch’s speech and has advice for artists who used to depend on media for exposure: He tells them to start their own.