Anybody want to buy a newspaper?

I’ve said that if I owned a newspaper, I’d sell it (in fact, a prospective student at CUNY just quoted that back to me last night). And now Floyd Norris writes a column in the Times (behind the barbed wire; sorry) asking who would buy one.

There is a venerable Wall Street joke featuring an investor who, having accumulated a large position in an illiquid stock, decides it is time to get out. “Yes, sir,” replies the broker when he is told to sell. “To whom?”

The current situation of Knight Ridder, the owner of newspapers including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald, brings back that joke, albeit painfully….

Mr. Sherman’s problem is one known by many investors who look for cheap stocks: where they see value, others see problems. The consensus Wall Street view of newspapers now is that they are a dying breed, destined to wither under relentless competition from the likes of Google. Profits may be good now, but they will not last, as circulation declines and advertisers seek newer media. An index of newspaper stocks is down 22 percent in 2005.

As long as newspapers keep thinking of themselves as papers, they will shrink. Guaranteed. The question is whether they are the best positioned to get to the other side, to the future of news, and whether they can afford to get there. More on that later….

  • I go to read the article, it’s blocked out by ‘Times Select’.

    Case closed.

  • Mike G

    Here’s a real question. Not who would you buy or sell a newspaper to. That’s the market for Titanic deck chairs.

    But who would you create a new newspaper for? And what it would it look like?

    Is there any value in the idea of a paper paper? There could still be. But what is it? Portability on trains? (Then you know what cities it has to be for.) The tactility and beauty of fine printing versus a screen? (Then the printing needs to be better than it is now.)

    Is there value in localness? Blogs and so on still aren’t very good at localness, that is, there are local blogs but they don’t seem to be connecting with audiences yet. Online media are mainly good at finding not geographic communities, but political ones. Is that the direction a newspaper should take? Get more local, or aim more at a specific faction?

    Is there value in all those people working in the same building? That’s one of the other things that newspapers provide (versus lots of bloggers). Right now we probably see news-as-big-business mostly in negative terms– editors who chew up and blandardize your copy (look how much more interesting the Lileks of is than the Lileks of the Star-Trib), groupthink that has everyone repeating the same nonsense as received wisdom (today’s example: Rep. Murtha’s “sudden” turn against the war, which he in fact opposed since before it started). But there are also virtues to big organizations, the great reporting, on those rare occasions when it happens, is still coming from the New York Timeses more than from the individual Michael Yons and Michael Tottens. Is there a way to design a newspaper’s internal structure so that it has both the institutional support that a big corporation offers and fosters the independent voices of blogging?

  • As a person also in the industry, I must say I am concerned. Newspaper job hunters are well-advised, in my opinion, to seek out “newspapers” that “get it.” That is, newspapers that position themselves broadly as information sources – providing news online, through text messages, etc., using written, video and audio content, in addition to the print product.

    Yes, newspapers are in a bad way right now. But, going forward, I think because newspapers are (usually) so good at words they can bridge the Web divide better than, say, a TV station. Have you ever looked at a local TV station’s Web page? Most of them, just like their broadcasts, are flash, not substance. That being said, not all newspapers are good at video and audio. Still, I find that many of the richest news sites are spawned by newspapers (NOLA,,, et al.).

    Unfortunately, quality of product doesn’t always translate to financial success.

  • On the other hand, wouldn’t news wire services be an ever more attractive product … surely the newspaper would convert easily to that, in the hands of an entrepreneur worth his ‘ent’.

  • To the extent that the job of a news outlet is aggregating news they will be irrelevant due to sites like Breaking news is not suited for the molasses that is ink. I think we’ll always have magazines though. The New Yorker could come out a month late and the articles would remain mostly relevant and I’ve never had the New Yorker bark orders to find an outlet before the battery dies.

    People keep going back to Slashdot because of the discussions. You’ve got a million smart people and a few crackpots debating the latest tech issues. If Slashdot put out a printed magazine every month with excerpts of the best discussions I’d buy it.

    But yeah, being twenty-something with a newspaper tucked under you arm is a little like showing up for work at Google with a slide rule and pet rock.

  • If I owned a major newspaper, I’d reinvent it and capture dozens of new revenue streams that myopic print leaders and even more myopic new-media pundits have been overlooking.

    Print has enormous untapped value. It’s so sad to see nearly everyone going gentle into that good night instead of raging against the dying of the light.

  • Don’t get too far down in the dumps Joe… there’s some serious reinvention brewing.

  • If I bought a newspaper here’s what I’d do, and I’ll use the OC Register as an example (since I kind of worked there from when I was 8 until I was 22). This applies to a local paper.

    1) Take the third floor (newsroom). Move them out and cut some staff. Put them in a big warehouse type space that was computers on the outside wall, and conversation areas inside. Make this warehouse in a public space, open to the public. Put in a coffee bar, open wifi and invite the consumer to come in. Leverage the content the consumer creates in this environment so that the reader is also the (co) writer.

    2) Take the second floor (customer service). Outsource most of it, use Kayako eSupport for the rest. The other half (marketing), cut half the staff and put them in the warehouse with the reporters. Give them all good wireless technology and teach them how to promote responsible sales/marketing/advertising that extends local business reach in innovative ways

    3) The Plant/press/pasteup/pagination: Good bye! You are a physical product. Not needed. I want the computers though from pagination. And the printers

    4) Photo department: You already use high megapixel digicams. Give them all EVDO cards, powerbooks and integration with a good photo system for online submissions.

    5) 5th floor – business affairs, the Taj Mahal executive suites… take you and your mahogany desks and retire in Laguna. Op-Ed, welcome to the warehouse! Time to get responsible ideology!

    6) IT – please learn some relevant technology. Please get rid of your PC’s and closed-source systems. I will however take your Sun E450’s and install Linux on them. And the HP9000’s.

    7) Graphic department: We like you. Time for 72dpi instead of lpi screens. Oh, and here is a copy of Flash 8 Pro. Realtime motion blur!

    8) 4th floor – Accounting, circulation, dining hall, photo studio. Take a few from accounting, keep a few circulation people who can learn SEO and web metrics. Rebuild a good cove in the warehouse for photo-shoots (and keep the kitchen for food shoots).

    So there is my answer (in short form). I think the power of a newspaper is getting diminished through the overhead needed to get the information to the world. The panic around the demise of analog media has caused massive compensation through the attempt (poorly) at revenue models in the online space, which leads to sites like and the LATime’s failed Wiki experiment.

    It’s time to take the vestiges of the old media away, leverage what a newspaper like OCR is good at and really integrate it into a community.

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  • Ravo

    1) Take the third floor (newsroom). Move them out and cut some staff. Put them in a big warehouse type space that was computers on the outside wall, and conversation areas inside. Make this warehouse in a public space, open to the public. Put in a coffee bar, open wifi and invite the consumer to come in. Leverage the content the consumer creates in this environment so that the reader is also the (co) writer.

    Yes, this would lead to an environment of debate rather than the facade of impartiality which doesn’t exist anyway.

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  • Dear Mr. Ethan,

    Thank You very much! I would like some more ideas.

    If possible, please give me Your E- mail.
    Mine is [email protected]

    Matej Gornik

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