Cutting up a newspaper

Friend Dave Morgan writes an insightfuul, provocative post — reacting to mine, here — suggesting that newspapers should disaggregate themselves into their separate, marketable skills: a news service; a sales/marketing company; a printing house; a distribution company; a digital shop. He breaks up the dependent, exclusive relationships that made newspapers businesses since their beginnings: nobody else has the content, nobody else has the audience, nobody else has the presses, nobody else has the trucks, nobody else can have a newspaper, but no more.

As we seek new business models for news — not to mention new futures for newspaper companies and their constituencies — this is the kind of thinking and discussion we need. So let’s explore it.

My fear in Dave’s scenario is that the news service won’t be supportable. Oh, the size of present newsrooms most certainly will shrink — no matter how much their inhabitants wish that weren’t true. But I wonder just who would buy their services and for how much. How much of a market is there for syndication when any information is an instant link away, when the value of exclusivity collapses? And disaggregated, it becomes easy for competitors to emerge.

So maybe we need to disaggregate the newsroom yet further into its distinct and, we hope, marketable skills. Reporting and news-gathering (words, images, sound, video, data, investigation) may well be something that freelancers (professionals and amateurs) do. And editing — curating, vetting, enabling, educating, to cut up the task yet further — may find new value. Analysis may happen more and more in the commentsphere that the community has become.

In a world of disaggregated, independent practitioners of journalism and media, I think the editors’ skills of finding the good people and stuff and making it better will be of value mostly to advertisers as they look for quality, credible networks where they can reach audiences. That ties journalism back to ad sales. But it also amplifies the church-state conflicts newspaper organizations were cultivated to control: That is, tough journalism, disaggregated, will not appeal to advertisers; fluff will. One hopes that the opposite is true of the audience — that there is a market demand for journalism, for harsh, true reality — and there lies the solution: without quality, you won’t have audience. That is the inherent leap of populist faith one must make to believe that news survives. I’ve made that leap.

I have similar trepidation for Dave’s digital company, since those divisions of newspapers have fewer unique skills (anybody can build a web page and with easy tools, no one needs to build them anymore).

Sales? There is where I think the core value of the newspaper lies. If the sales organization were freed up to sell anything — to help local and national marketers reach local customers — then it would, in turn, support no end of new efforts, products, services, networks — and, we hope, journalism. The problem with Dave’s scenario is revealed in my post that inspired Dave’s: Newspapers have not been good at innovating and finding new ways to serve new advertisers; Google has been. But Dave’s leap of faith is that freed from supporting only a newspaper, sales will be sales and it will find value in service to a market. My leap, again, is that this will still support quality, credible reporting.

Printing and distribution? Yes, absolutely, they are no longer key values but are, instead, cost structures with too much drag. Divest them; take the cash to invest in innovation. And the fringe benefit is that, no longer tied to the infrastructure of shifting atoms, the journalistic and sales operations will finally engage in that innovation; they won’t care about preserving paper but will instead concentrate on their true values in the market.

I wish I had a bunch smart business students at hand to start making models for each of these media economies. If we assume that there is a demand for news — and in a democracy, we must — then what does the supply side of that market look like? How will local marketing operate? How will networks replace corporations?

When you get down to it, what Dave is really doing is cutting newspapers into platforms that enable independent operators to do their jobs and make a new economy of local media. I say that news and media organizations must think and operate like platforms. This could be what that looks like.