Desperate times need desperate models

One could make a blog with nothing but daily reports of bad news about newspapers.

One could make another blog with suggestions for drastic measures that should be taken — even if as experiments — at every newspaper company in the country.

The latest bad news is word that Journal Register, publisher of the New Haven Register and 21 other daily and 310 nondaily newspapers, could go bankrupt. The article argues that this is more a problem of debt service than operations — but then it goes on to say that “its operating performance has declined” with EBITDA expected to fall from $90 million to $70 million in a year.

If I can get some money into a program at CUNY — and as part of a conference on new business models for news I’m holding there, probably now in September — I’m thinking about hiring MBAs to create drastic models of new newspaper businesses, such as:
* The free newspaper — here’s an argument that the Guardian should go that way.
* The online-only newspaper — that has happened in Madison.
* Selling off printing, production, and distribution arms — as suggested by Dave Morgan.
* Break them up into a bunch of niche products — as suggested by NewMediaBytes. That could mean selling the sports section separately (or making it online-only); it could mean turning out a whole bunch of products from golf to parenting to food.
* Go hyperlocal.
* Turn all the reporters into independent agents — as I sort of suggested here — and the newsroom and news product into just a packager and ad network.
* Jettison everything but real reporting — which is a smaller proportion of an editorial budget than many would like to admit — and charge more for the product to a highly interested audience.
* Distribute a local supplement inside national papers: USA Today, The Times, or the Journal.
* Become a local magazine with an online component covering breaking news, local calendars, and such. (Except I think that local magazines are in as much trouble as local newspapers.)
* Become an ad network.

What else? Note that I did not suggest foundation or public support. I think that’s a pipedream. Journalism either is or isn’t a business. I think it is, but not like the one we have now. And we’d better get to reinventing it or it could well die. The Journal Register could just be the first.

Whoop. Whoop. Whoop. That’s the alarm going off, newspaperfolk.

: LATER: Note that the Britannica blog is holding a forum this week on the fate of newspapers. I’m looking forward to Clay Shirky’s call for experimentation.

  • Conceivably you could pay a print shop and freelancers, including ad sales people, and publish a newspaper from a table at a local coffee shop that had free wi-fi.

    By the way, there is a blog that rounds up all the bad news about the industry:

  • Timon

    You need some new products in addition to stories, I think media organizations will have to become research and services companies instead of just story farms. Where is the database and analysis of all the menu items the restaurant reviewer in San Francisco could be selling to Lean Cuisine in Solon, Ohio? (Or whoever else, in the reviewer’s organization.) And by analysis, I don’t mean “people want comfort food” platitudes, I mean, “wow, pappardelle is up 7000%.” When you are writing about some dreadful real estate and land use battle, it may be enough for page 1 to just quote a neighborhood “activist” and some developer, but it would be really valuable to the next developer, and the next activists, if you put all your notes, and all that contact and background info, into a useable database or at least some kind of xml. You could charge a lot for that kind of knowledge, and if you could abstract it into just data you could avoid the ethical complications of journalists working with potential subjects. Kind of like an expensive version of knol, where you have huge advantages because of location and a lot of pricing power.

  • I recently wrote a thought piece for the NAA on the future of newspapers. I suggested that they start to look hard at mobile media – newspaper in your pocket 24/7. No one owns the space yet, text messaging has hit the audience tipping point, they could start to build a database that could be sold to advertisers (USA Today is actually starting to do this with 4INFO).

    I shot an idea cannonball on this subject over the bow of two groups that I know. Did they jump up and kiss me? Um no. Are they even considering this? Who the heck knows. So, just one more idea gone, well, who knows.

  • Q

    It’s partly—at the very least—a leadership issue. Companies are run by people. Most of the entrenched management at MSM companies needs to go. This is mainly because many are lifelong newspaper/radio/TV/etc. folks who finally got their big break at, unfortunately for them, the extended moment in time when past business models are collapsing beneath their feet. And the collapse was inevitable – as we all know, there were many warnings (and therefore opportunities) over the past ten years. They simply either ignored them, chose to cut costs, killed product development, or all of the above (that would be the “failure trifecta”). What’s left of many of these companies is a financial and cultural disaster. Layer on those companies operating under whistling-in-the-dark family ownership with super-voting control (so the third cousins can keep the gravy-train dividends coming), and you’ve got desperate times, indeed.

    The information “power structure” is collapsing alongside the business models. Newspapers no longer peddle influence like the good old days. They don’t get invited to the good parties anymore. Faced with increased competition for attention, former big swinging papers like the Times resort to “breaking” stories heavy on innuendo and anonymous sources and light on substance. In Keller’s defensiveness on running the McCain story, you could almost hear him silently insisting to himself what an important role the NYT still has in national discourse. This has an obvious effect on editorial product quality, which we all know has needed improvement for years.

    Collaborative, hyperlocal, etc. – all good ideas, but a bitch to implement much less execute. Will a newspaper have the right people to do that? If they don’t, will they be able to hire them?

    Another key–and perhaps the biggest–problem is the sales organization, but I suppose we can save that topic for another day.

    Turning a newspaper around, if it is indeed possible, will be excruciating at every level and every department. It will take courage and leadership. (This means the consortium insanity has to stop.) Your threads on the topic will provide some interesting conversation fodder for them. Think of the money they’ll save by not hiring McKinsey for another round of off-sites. That’ll be a good start.

  • I read with interest Eric Alterman’s article on this subject in a recent New Yorker. It seems obvious to me that any media company ought to be investing in cultivating young journalists and readers, since the aging readership demographic is one of the major issues at play here.

    Since public education is in such a crisis in this country (well, at least here in California), I would love to see some judiciously funded private programs bringing the best and brightest staff writers and editors into classrooms, creating more internships in junior colleges–in short, more engagement all around by newspapers in local issues.

    Admittedly this is a long-term and partial solution, but as long as their reactions to the shrinking market are based on fear and feature dumbing down their coverage, it’s hard to place blame for their demise on an external source.

  • It’s easier to start from scratch and build exactly what you need than to take the typical newspaper-shaped organization and taper it into a sharply focused product or service. Can you imagine taking The Chicago Tribune, for instance, and turning it into a hyperlocal site with a database, a dozen staffers and a network of citizens?

    Except that the startups seem to have a hard time achieving the critical mass that the old newspapers are struggling to hang onto.

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  • Sean

    Newspapers just need to put out a better quality and people will read it. The New York papers are doing just fine because they have the best reporter, they get the best stories and they don’t lay off their staff. You have to spend money to make money. Blogs exist by copping off stories reported first in newspapers…newspapers can survive if quality improves. The problem is the corporate types just look at the bottom line, ax reporters and then wonder why people don’t want to read an inferior product.

    For example, when the Hartford Courant announced they were laying people off, they also said they were introducing a “new and improved” auto section to show off pictures of cars basically. Who f’in cares? People want news, they care about news and they will read newspapers that deliver. Right now, newspapers are delivering. The problem is the idiots running the show, not the industry.

  • o-shift

    The Journal Register is a special case. The company took over distressed family newspapers, cut staff, reduced benefits (at least at my newspaper) and didn’t invest at all in the product. Take a look at its newspaper web sites; they’re primitive, some don’t even allow readers to comment.

    And regarding this suggestion.
    Turn all the reporters into independent agents — as I sort of suggested here — and the newsroom and news product into just a packager and ad network.<

    Jeff if you can explain for me how middle age reporters editors with pre-existing health conditions can get health insurance as part of this, then I’m all ears. Otherwise, what you are suggesting here is a wal-mart pay lifestyle without the health care.

  • o-shift

    Why should reporters and editors lead a life that’s harder than the professors at universities that train them?

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  • LittleLeaguer

    Newspapers can only survive and function alongside niche publications and the web. I happen to like all of these ideas, and I would distill them down to a couple that have the best chance of success.
    1. The community is the newspaper and the newspaper needs to reflect that as directly as possible with transparent technology.
    In other words, the first rule applies: Providing a useful advertising medium is the essential purpose newspapers exist. The revenue for production permits all to share everything else, whatever that might be. Ad reps must be in the field with tablet and stylus, having the ability to design an ad for print and online at the place of business.
    2. Editors and reporters need to be out in their communities, not back in the newsroom. Not every yokel in the coffee shop or hardware store has something worth printing, or the ability to say what he or she wants to say. But there is no reason why, with remote servers and printers and website technology, news gathering cannot be less centralized in a newspaper building with an old-fashioned newsroom.
    3. The biggest problem with printing a daily newspaper is that someone dictated you have to print every day. Why? Are human beings such trained seals that they demand that be so? No, I don’t think they are anymore. Many times they read the paper one day, then look online for news the next. So that leaves the obvious role model: The free community weekly. Save trees. Plant computers.

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