Whither withering newspapers?

There’s nothing new at all in today’s New York Times story about the failing newspaper industry. It’s a basic roundup with a few more depressing quotes from the likes of Brian Tierney, who surely must regret his purchase of the Philadelphia Inquirer now.

What I wish were there was reporting on the next step: going to anyone and everyone asking them what they would do with a paper. If you bought the Sun-Times (who would?) or own the Boston Globe (speaking of regret) what radical steps would you take to rescue what matters?

I’ll throw in my two cents shortly. But I want to hear: what would you do if you owned a newspaper?

  • steve-o

    1. I’d go 100% on-line
    2. use the unused paper to make ethanol
    3. then I’d sell the building
    4. $$$ profit

  • MK

    I’d try to find ways to make it relevent to my audience. There is still a place for print, but the content has to evolve. Newpaper can offer a ‘lean-back’ experience of reading (particulary weekends) but has to get past reporting on news that is 12 hours old. Be local, be hyperlocal.

  • CW

    Use the paper to publish the best of what comes up online.

  • irishbill

    I’m a (union) delivery foreman for the NYT. I see up close the tremendous overhead involved in getting the paper out. I’d kill all print except for 15k copies for hard core Manhattan newsies. Go completely on-line…it is really inevitable, and Sulzberger, Jr. would be accorded a place of honor in the family’s history. And then I would take the buyout and go into my woodshop and finish a few projects I have going……….

  • JS

    I’d give every reporter a blog and a flip video camera. I’d scrap all the wasted money on generic national AP stories that every other paper already has and I’d have my reporters focus on what we can do best — local reporting. I’d embrace the community more and invite them to blog and share news in a community section of the Web site. I’d poll my readers to see what kind of coverage they’d like to see more of. I’d focus much more on the Web and how to create value for advertisers online.

  • I would focus heavily on the Internet of course, but for print I would cut down the paper down to 16-22 pages for dailies and perhaps an expanded Sunday paper if it warranted. And I would make it very cheap or free. The little told story is that college newspapers and the quickie Metro papers are doing fairly well these days. I think drastically cutting the size of the paper would help improve coverage – less AP and wire stories, etc. Just the most important local and national stories. I think this would make it more relevent to readers and if you made it cheaply available people would start reading again and you can make money on advertising.

  • Hi Jeff,
    I don’t own a newspaper group but I have just met a man called Birger Magnus who does. Shibsted appears to be bucking the trend in Europe with a combination of online andfree newspapers without, they claim, compromising quality.
    Charlie Beckett

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  • sidereal

    1) Get out of the printing business
    2) Get out of the delivery/shipping business
    3) Get out of the AP-regurgitation business

    What does that leave me with? Oh yeah, an experienced, dedicated staff of local journalists who understand the area and have great contacts. I’m sure I could find some value in that. . .

    Also, if I stopped consuming the AP regurgitation, I don’t see any reason I’d need to provide to it. And suddenly news about my area would be harder to get and therefore more valuable. I’m sure I could find some value in that. .

  • Stop writing to every single age category. I’m sorry, but some of the stories we write – we can’t talk to adults like they’re adults, lest we offend someone. I don’t mean we’d have all the cursing of real life, just some of the edge it has. We’re too dry, too stuffy. If you’re bored writing something, they’re bored reading it. Throw out the rote stories, the recycled themes, the kindergarten-through-88 writing and actually talk to people. We expect the web to be a conversation, but that only works if what you write sounds human.

  • Amy

    It’s easy to say you’d go 100% online, but until someone can prove that online advertising will support a full newsroom, I’m not convinced that is the way to go if you want to make money in the short term. Being hyperlocal is important, as is ensuring your staff knows how to use technology as part of their journalistic lives. JS has it right in that regard.

  • There is a large community of “counter culture” people who have been complaining for probably 100, if not a 500, years about how the mainstream media creates a homogeneous culture that doesn’t provide a forum for debate on the important issues of the day. (Basically, the ADBUSTERS crew and their ilk.)
    If I were them: I’d complain less, create a sustainable business plan, buy some very cheap “mainstream” media companies (like the Sun-Times or a hundred other struggling newspapers, radio stations, tv broadcasters), use their brand and distribution to get their ideas out and see if they can develop a counter culture media distribution network that would use neglected, old school technologies (like radio, newspaper and broadcast TV) to create authentic, ‘alternative’ programming. How cool would it be if the counter culture took over “mainstream” brands, used older and cheap technologies and created a real narrative for their causes? It would make having a radio, a broadcast TV and a newspaper subscription the coolest things ever.

    Just a thought.

  • I’m puzzled by this faith in the potential of in hyperlocal and always have been. Now, admittedly, I’ve never been that interested in local news, but I’m not that out of sync with the rest of the world. There have always been people who bought the paper only for world news or sports or movies.

    Not everyone wants to read about what Aunt Maisie down the street is up to.

    And so far, alot of the high-profile experiments in hyperlocal web journalism have fallen pretty flat. I’d say that’s an indication of something

    So what would I do then? Go 100% onlline. Cover the best local stories. And cut deals similar to the one Jeff suggested for the NASCAR writer at the Florida paper. Reporters cover what they do better than everyone else. And, yes, everyone blogs and uses cameras.

    To generate revenues, I would also try to set up sites up some kind of directory that tells you where to find the best plumber, pizza, store for soccer balls. The directories have a monopoly on this lucrative market and they do a terrible job. Newspapers still have their brand clout — for a limited time to come –and with their news sense, they could corner this market if they really tried.

  • sidereal

    Going local and going online are popular prescriptions, but one thing I think needs to be pointed out is that if you do go online, you *have* to go local. It’s not either/or. You could reasonably argue that in the offline news it makes sense for a local paper to carry world news. It’s the most available paper outlet, and if I really feel like reading about Super Tuesday in newsprint, I’m going to the Seattle PI or Seattle Times to do it. But once you’re online, you have hundreds of competitors running the same AP world news. News-producing competitors (CNN.com, MSNBC.com, etc) as well as aggregators like Google News and Yahoo News. You have no margin there. If I’m online and I want world news, the Seattle Times website is probably 800th on my list. Don’t even bother.

  • To AnnB’s point: >I’m puzzled by this faith in the potential of in hyperlocal and always have been.<

    I don’t get it either.

    Hyperlocal is owned by local blogs. Some neighborhood blogs are so local they will tell you when a new beer is on tap on a local pub. A newspaper can never be hyperlocal enough.

    But local bloggers rely on newspapers for the big picture reports, the trends, the put-it-all-together stories, the live coverage of stuff, … there is a lot of opportunity for newspapers that can figure out the relationship.

    And slap me if I ever use the word hyperlocal again. Ugly, mutant word.

  • Go almost completely online, but give away a smaller free version in populated public areas to drive people to the web. In NYC, I see five free dailies on the subway for every NYTimes. Also, make video a larger part of the web presence. I have no idea why the NYTimes doesn’t have a video player front and center on its main page? You actually have to hunt for videos on NYT’s website.

    Hyperlocal appears to be part of it, but really it’s being really good at a niche subject, which means being an aggregator too. Don’t be afraid to link out. Live blog more events. Give non-professionals or amateurs a chance to contribute. Or to help decide what stories to pursue further kind of like newsassignment.net.

  • The solution is not in seeking a solution – for all papers won’t necessarily (need to) find the same solution. I.e. I don;t believe that ‘going online’ is the panacea. Or being hyperlocal (whatever that is supposed to mean :-))

    The challenge is re-defining or re-shaping the new paradigm, This is Marketing 101 stuff addressed in the 60’s by Prof Ted Levitt: We are not in the Railroad business , but the transportation business – etc.

    (The ones that fail first are the ones that probably defined themselves as being in the ‘newspaper business’.)

    Newspapers (some) built a competitive advantage on
    1- the basis of controlling distribution channel,
    2- having (exclusive) access to information

    The web is eroding those two advantages but I wonder if they were ever the sustainable competitive advantages? I suspect some newspapers will find that they were/ should have been in a business that revolves around inform/educate/ authentication/ verification/ truth information distribution.

    From this muddled last sentence it is clear that I don’t know the right answer (but I am not in that business and I don’t need to know).

    But if they do figure that out, AND follow some of the advice in the other comments about
    – being better segmented (not only geographical),
    – and by embracing other distribution channels,
    – and by exploring new pricing models

    These issues are really just Marketing’s age-old 4 P’s. But this can only be addressed once the bosses have figured out what business they are really in…

    A long story, to simply say: the question is where to (whither) – and not how (=4Ps).

  • I’d really push for the “good old fashioned Sunday paper” tradition, but cut down on print during the rest of the week and amp up my online edition.

  • As most commenters predict, online is a big part of the answer.

    The many who propose that the print version should be a free sheet I fully agree with.

    The issue of hyperlocal in respect of the editorial content I am sceptical about, unless the whole project is targeted at a geographically limited market.

    But I think hyperlocal for a major national news brand is important with regard to the advertising.

    Here in Germany there have been successful experiments with free, compact copies of, as I recall, Handelsblatt (a business newspaper) distributed on the high-speed trains and printed in many different locations. Multi-point printing would allow for the swapping out of some of the advertising to enhance local relevance.

    This might be a feature of a fully advertising-dependent national news brand.

  • Mike

    This is slightly off-topic and I might be missing something, but I thought the New York Times was going online for free? How are they deciding what is free and what isn’t?

    I enjoyed this headline and not being able to read it

    Times to Stop Charging for Parts of Its Web Site – The New York Times

  • There’s a tiny, tiny newspaper with a staff of three and a circulation under 100 that I’d buy. I’d build a functioning Web site and expand the hyper local coverage past the block they seem to cover. They also cater to an extremely educated audience, but that doesn’t seem to be working for them. I’d add local coverage of schools, school sports, and board meetings. Or, I’d turn it into a hyper local alt weekly (the current alt weekly focuses on life across the bay with a little coverage of the smaller paper’s beat.) Right now, they print out 2,000 copies for a circulation in the double digits, so I’d work with the printer and see if we could get the printing numbers down until the circulation went up. They’re a weekly, but I’d have my staff publish news briefs daily on the Web site, quick updates that were expanded on the site as well as online publication of the hard copy stories. I’d drop the price down to $0 and personally hand pick where my boxes would go (there would probably be 10-20 to begin with). I would also consider delivering the paper to each household in the city and building the classifieds section. I would visit local businesses personally, tell them I was expanding my paper, and give them the opportunity to advertise at a promotional rate on both my paper and my Web site. After the promotion, I’d work to provide independently run businesses price cuts on advertising.

  • I’d hire some more reporters. Much of what passes for news these days is just a rewrite. As an example, NY dept of education announced that they were going to close 32 schools next year. There was a list of the ones in NYC, but in the other communities with closing schools there was no story on which ones were to close. Two of the cities were Yonkers and Buffalo, both of which have local papers. If they can’t report things like that in detail what’s the point of the local paper?

    Second I’d form a consortium to get a viable electronic book on the market. If I had the newspaper automatically downloaded to my ebook before I woke up each morning I’d continue to pay for it, the same as I do for the paper edition. This could exist in parallel with some version of free information as at present.

    Current ebook technology is still not good enough to attract widespread adoption.

    The lack of good reporting staff is becoming glaringly obvious as evidenced by the moves of both the BBC and the Guardian into the US news market.

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  • … Whither withering newspapers? …

  • Hi Jeff
    1. I’ve read it elsewhere – Get the reporters and editorial staff blogging.
    2. Go online.
    3. Look for new ways to rebrand – a new attitude, personality, emphasis, something that singles the paper out with difference and drop the old appeals that aren’t working.
    4. Hire an excellent advertising firm and promote the paper in other avenues.

  • I just wrote about this, in the form of suggestions for The New York Times. One step I think they should take is to become a social network. Here’s the full post.

  • Contrarian

    I like reading my big sheet paper. I get 7 days of it delivered by a guy in a truck. I get the hyperlocal weekly paper too, also delivered by a guy in a truck. Both of them are available online for free. The weekly’s web site is miserable and doesn’t have too many ads. The daily’s web site is not bad.

    I spend a lot of time reading from a screen. Not only is it my job but I read stuff I couldn’t find or find the time for or afford if hardcopy was the only option.

    Reading the hardcopy paper is much faster than reading it online (RSS or not). In square inches or pixels/dots there’s no electronic display (certainly not one I can lift or take to the can with me) that comes close to what fits on a printed page. That day may come but it’s not in sight now.

    There are many of us who like getting the paper. I skip the national stuff that I’ve already seen on the TV or online. I look at the local ads but never the national (or car) ads. My daily is part of a big group so they print stories from the group writers. I hardly ever read them. I only read stuff about local politics, business, some sports. If there’s no business model that supports selling me some paper with that sort of content, then I guess the newspapers fold. But I’d still rather not be tied to a computer or even worse some tiny LCD screen with eye-fatiguing print and tedious scrolling. To me online is not the answer.

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  • anon

    Why is it that people only write about the TECHNOLOGICAL issues facing newspapers?

    Why won’t people acknowledge that the incredible, boring, un-thinking, jejune, extreme left-wing bias of the print media is what did it in. No thinking person wants to read the same arrogant pseudo-intellectual day after day after day.

    Face it. The content of the news paper sucks. Sure people will read it FOR FREE, but no one with half a mind will PAY for it.

  • Garbanzo

    1) Fire the top editor and replace him/her with someone who has a consumer marketing background but not an editorial background. Newspaper people are the worst thing for newspapers (whiny, whiny, whiny!)
    2) Establish some topline goals that you want the paper to achieve in terms of audience, revenue and profit
    3) Give him/her free reign to remake the paper as he/she sees fit

  • As the comments suggest, any attempt to rethink newspapers draws comments from at least three kinds of readers. Newspapers should develop strategies for each kind. Despite what seem like big changes so far, newspapers still tend to think in terms of one-size-fits-all. How hard can it be to give people what they want? In no particular order, the readers and possible strategies:

    People who have gone online and aren’t coming back. A robust Web site for readers who have high standards about how a Web site should work and feel. Perhaps with “skins” at a click of the button for just the text, or just the bloggers, or Web 2.0 goodness, or irresistible multimedia, or streams and feeds.

    People who love the feel of paper with a cup of coffee. A Sunday newspaper with classic, golden-age journalism, “the traditional newspaper for traditional newspaper readers.” Weekday papers, especially street sales, would be lean and efficient, for picking up in the coffee shop or pizza parlor while waiting for the order.

    Partisans who want a paper that cares about the things they care about. Give them The Daily Olbermann, already. Or The Morning Steyn.

  • Not everyone wants to read about what Aunt Maisie down the street.

  • Very Simple

    You act like this is the first business to ever die. I would call my accountant and say we have x years of y revenue til z collapse. If my stake was higher than the net x times y I would write off the loss. In the mean time I would try to win the race to the bottom, and that race will have a winner, pretentious proclamations about “journalism” notwithstanding. Many commenters have already crossed the zero price finish line. There is also a zero-journalism race, but that has probably already been won by google. (Zero-price + zero journalism already exists in my hometown of SF, I wish them the best.) The problem is not so much that there is no niche for journalists, there is no niche for generalists, really by definition. You have to have a lot of detailed knowledge about very specific things to participate in the networked information economy; in my experience local journalists have more of a generalist don’t-bother-me-with-details-god-forbid-equations-I-went-to-j-school-so-I’d-never-have-to-do-math-again kind of way. Here is a hint as to what publications/blogs/etc are valuable: what do people who are immersed in the relevant topics read? The air-balloon summaries can be done by whoever, we no longer need newspapers for that. So, what should a newspaper do? Put its affairs in order, hope to postpone rather than avoid the inevitable.

  • Those who only address content as in online versus print are missing the point. Any fine newspaper could be replicated online with all kinds of “webby” additions. The key is paying for for that fine staff, especially the newsgatherers. The slide in newspapers of late is coming because advertisers are changing. Print advertising even for small newspapers is just huge. So huge that even the also huge economies of not printing and distributing a print product do not lure many publishers into going all online because of the much diminished advertising revenue. The key is to continue to to be able to deliver content in a way that works for your advertisers. In many places this still can mean a print product for local advertisers if the local newspaper is the best channel for advertising. In small local markets — and that can be defined as parts of major city or suburbs or rural areas or small cities — the local print paper is still likely the best advertising channel. For now. The key will be to see where these small local advertisers mwill turn to drive business and be part of that. Jeff’s proposal for widgetizing content and connecting advertising you sell is the kind of shift I think is going to happen down the road that will really change how news is done. You’ll have to be willing to go anywhere to drive clicks to your advertisers.
    And hyper local is absolutely right for what your staff and your publication generates. What’s happening nearby is what you have to offer the world through the web or print. It really is the franchise, as cliche as that is becoming.
    As for the question, I think a network of affiliated but separate — in look, in approach, in subjects, in voices — sites or blogs working narrow niches with ads sold to the right advertisers local and national might be the way a mainstream paper could parlay its talented news staff into a publication of the future.

  • Tony,
    There is nothing that everyone wants to read. That is the problem for newspapers and the promise of the internet, eh?

  • kahuna

    A newspaper is, at bottom, simply a platform to sell advertising. Holier than thou talk about ‘missions’ and ‘journalistic goals’ and ‘public trust’ are just so much bullshit. There’s an ad in today’s (Sat) NYT for a 49000 dollar Gucci briefcase. Yes, 49k. How many click thru’s is it gonna’ get? Newspapers are buggy whips……..

  • obo

    Focus on in-depth, long-form weekly investigative articles in magazine format and online, with two or three reporters a day covering breaking news and posting it to an RSS feed and on Twitter.

    Do NOT go Gannett and focus on aggregating local tidbits like event calendars and photo galleries. Individuals and groups do that better than a company ever will. Instead, seek out these ground and find ways to incorporate their content — on their terms — into yours.

    Work with organizations — businesses, non-profits, government agencies — to make it easier to publish their own news frequently, and co-sponsor it under your brand umbrella.

    Use Internet feeds better. They’re not just for updates anymore. Look at a few Yahoo! Pipes applications as illustrations.

    You have to keep the print element in there somehow because there’s still money to be made — a lot, really, even if it is downhill — but minimize the costs of production and distribution with small-format, convenient, 3-to-5-a-week niche publications — event guides, water-cooler news, local business news, local entertainment news, local government news, and broad-scoped opinion.

    If it’s duplicated elsewhere on the Internet, link to it unless you have something to add. The wires can be incredibly useful if they’re localized — most papers miss this point.

    Every paper should have a parallel entity — lawrence.com to the LWJ, for example — community-driven, youth-targeted, mobile-accesible, informative and entertaining site filled with useful who-what-where-when information.

    The broadsheet should die, completely. People don’t like it? Carriage-drivers learned how to use cars; you can learn to read something that’s a different shape. Stop coddling codgers and tell them to get over it. No industry carved out its long-term survival by clinging tighter to a shrinking, deprecating market.

  • “Professional” journalism has become too incestuous – it’s just a big, bad, bland, homogenized “good ol’ boys” network now – more worried about satisfying advertisers than reporting “the truth” or finding any “fresh voices.”

    If I owned a newspaper, I’d go out and do some reporting the old fashioned way: By dressing up in a Batman outfit and scaring the bejeezus out of my sources until they sang like a canary! And then, obviously, blog about it back in the Bat Cave.

    What – Too much?

  • Fire all those overpaid columnists, and making deals with a bunch of assorted bloggers instead would be a good cost reducing idea, too.

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  • Walter Abbott

    There’s only one thing they can do – go online. The day of Dead Tree newspapers are for the most part over. The most important piece of information in the NY Times story was in the next to the last graf: But for every dollar advertisers pay to reach a print reader, they pay about 5 cents, on average, to reach an Internet reader. Naturally, advertisers will eventually cease paying for wasted advertising.

    Somehow, expenses will have to be trimmed to stay inside of revenues. Just as it didn’t make sense to pay people to manually transcribe words once movable type was invented, it no longer makes economic sense to print words that can be viewed electronically.

  • Vee

    Given we live in a world where information is “essential” the plight of the newspaper is disturbing. But as in anthing Change is a must.

    Most newspapers cater not too often to their local readers. When I pick up my paper, I am oftern reading about someone ‘out there’ — great, but is there nothing worthy to be written about the local business man/woman in my township? Going online and embracing local communties — and there are so many vibrant ones, would be a way to go to keep our newspapers going.

    Short of that…. old style journalism dies! The words are “new media” multi-platforms, and that interprets innovation and survival.


  • Focus on building a community, obviously communities are the things of the future. The newspaper is like a brand you feel connected to it or you don’t. Make sure to connect to your readers and try to use the collective wisdom your readers have.

    This means you have to focus, put energy in the things that make you strong and syndicate the things that cost you energy with valuable and equal partners.

    Are newspapers the new magazines? With a release span of once a week magazines often have to write around the news, or make it. With todays (new) media consumption a newspaper reporting the news is often like a magazine. You already knew about it.

    Newspapers have to focus on the things they are good at, this will make them more valuable, give direction and identity.

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  • Seentoomuch

    Fire the upper management that treat a paper like a box of detergent. The problem with newspapers is they want the type of profit you get from Keebler or Chiquita.

    Newspapers used to be owned by people who loved the business. They existed to bring the news, to be shared, to be talked about, to be saved. To clip and tuck away, to frame, to hold on to an event, a milestone. People trusted it, identified with it. Loved it or hated it but felt it was their own. The owners were content to make a profit and keep the news paper running. Not to rape it for all its worth then sell to the next guy who didn’t give a hoot.

    It’s a living breathing thing. Not cereal, not a car, not a new athletic shoe.

    Get the greed out of the industry. It sickens me.

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  • Brian E

    Smalltown papers and large dailys all face the same problems,but are
    not created equal.
    People are deluged with information from the web,cell phones, radio,tv,
    even electronic bladerunner like billboards.
    To the point we have the attention span of first graders.
    And thats the big problem,grabbing peoples attention,and advertisers
    only have x amount of cash to spread around.
    Papers ,if they expect to charge actual money have to jazz it up ,look
    at most daily papers and they all have the same taste “vannila”
    Spicy headlines , lead stories that make readers WANT to turn pages,
    and stories that yes…. may actually get people riled.
    The vanilla news is meant to placecate the masses.If you want to compete
    against all the other distractions you got to be a Rocky road,double cherry
    sundae folks.

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  • Randa

    I think local papers should focus on 1) regional perspective and 2) combined analysis of trends in syndicated stories, rather than just repeatedly posting more stories from the AP.

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