After a yo-yo of hope and no hope below, now we move to the only discussion that really matters: What to do about it. Edward Roussel, head of digital at the Telegraph in London, writes an inspired essay telling newspapers what they should do – if it isn’t too late.

The best approach for battle-weary media executives may be to let the fire run its course—however counterintuitive that might seem. That’s partly because there is little the newspaper industry can do to stop the advancing flames. But it’s also because today’s obsession with saving newspapers has meant that, for the most part, media companies have failed to plan adequately for tomorrow’s digital future. The economic downturn has added to the urgent need for a change of direction….

He makes 10 strong suggestions (my links added):

1. Narrow the focus.
“…[M]edia companies need to invest more money in their premium content—editorial that is unavailable elsewhere but that is highly valued by readers. Go deep, not wide.

2. Plug into a network. “…Media companies will increasingly see themselves as part of a chain of content, as opposed to a final destination. Journalists will act as filters, writing with authority but also guiding readers to sources that add depth to coverage. The future of journalism is selling expertise, not content.”

3. Rolling news with views. “Newspaper deadlines suit publishers, not readers. News is a continuum…. It’s not simply about serving breaking news—the AP and Reuters can handle that. The role of a newspaper company on the Web is to add value: look at a story from a number of angles, engage your audience, add multimedia.

4. Engage with your readers. “The explosion of blogging and social media Web sites has created a culture in which consumers of news expect to be included in the news publishing process….”

5. Bottom up, not top down. “The reporters on the ground are closest to your readers. They are therefore best placed to conceive, create and nurture community Web sites….”

6. Embrace multimedia.Train editors to see video, photo galleries, graphics and maps as equal storytelling forms to text….”

7. Nimble, low-cost structures. “About 75 percent of newspaper costs have nothing to do with the creation of editorial content…. Newspaper companies are bad at technology, so a digitally minded chief technology officer will be able to get cheaper and more effective services by outsourcing. Newspaper sales teams don’t do particularly well at selling ads on the Internet; too often they sell ads that are irrelevant to a reader’s interests in an era when Google has made relevance key. If your sales team can’t beat Google, then outsource to Google.”

8. Invest in the Web. “Don’t try to suck too much revenue from your fledgling network. Your Web site needs investment before it can fly… A Web revenue-growth model cannot simply be a mirror image of the decline in your newspaper sales.”

9. Shake up leadership. “…If the people who run your newsroom aren’t passionate about your digital future, it’s certain not to materialize.”

10. Experiment. “…Don’t be afraid of failure. Try new projects, see what works, and build on success.”

  • On the network question: It worked quite well for Google, eBay, craigslist, Skype, and some others.

    On the business model, yes, this is precisely why I think we need to get down to numbers and why I’m starting a project and recruiting some MBAs and finance folks to help flesh out models. We’ll never know whether they work until we do them. The one thing that surely won’t work is standing back and not doing them because we’re not sure whether they will work. See Edward’s last bullet, right?

  • Giving away free pie is not a valid indicator of how much people love pie.

    However, giving away free newspapers, and having them rejected, is a valid indicator of how much people love newspapers.

  • Today, newspapers, which historically have been among the most profitable businesses, are failing because their business models have been rendered ancient by the Internet.

    The question that newspaper industry executives and consultants haven’t answered is, what will make papers viable?

    That some very smart people haven’t come up with a real answer tells how difficult the question is. So the still surviving publishers are holding on for dear life, hoping that their slide in advertising market share will bottom out at a level that allows them to be at least modestly profitable and relevant.

    I have a few thoughts. None, new, I assume.

    Newspapers are tanking due to their loss of most of their classified advertising to eBay, craigslist.com and various jobs and auto sites on the Internet.

    Classifieds historically have attracted almost as many readers as business news stories and the comics. Almost 39 years ago, a couple of bright young guys in Chicago started the Weekly Reader, which allowed anyone to publish classifieds FREE. They made a fortune, publishing one great feature a week along with a few fillers and hundreds of ads.

    Even today, alternative weeklies are filled with ads and one or two interesting stories. I’m not sure they’re thriving. Indeed I think some are hurting.

    But they present a business model that daily newspapers might adapt.

    Print free classifieds for individuals. Charge affordable prices for commercial and job ads. Craigslist charges $25.

    Since the Internet has a tough time beating local display ads published in newspapers, wrap the classifieds around the display ads.

    Cut editorial costs to the bone while increasing readership of the paper and its related web site.

    Publish one or two major investigative and trend pieces a day. You might also publish comics and puzzles that aren’t easily accessible on the net. Publish briefs on national, local, sports and business news with refers to the paper’s web site. Make sure all stories include tons of links to source materials and related stories. Keep it simple.

    Invite all governmental agencies to submit their news releases and related propaganda. Group by town, county and school district. Publish the lede graphs in the paper. Publish the whole thing on the paper’s website. Open every item to comment by readers. They would provide the content that people would want to read.

    Support this venture by selling affordable advertising to local merchants. Some would buy links to their web sites. Others would buy banner ads and text ads and others would buy display ads in the paper.

    Automate ad sales, letting customers buy the ads on the web site. Advertisers would be responsible for writing, editing and submitting ads ready for publication on the web and/or in the paper. Payment would be by credit card, improving cash flow and collections as well as profitability.

    Buy the software and systems needed to make the business work. Self-development is a huge waste of money. Not invented here is stupid.

    To survive, newspapers have to make money on display ads and circulation. This means they have to cut editorial and advertising sales and admin costs while producing products that serve some need that can’t and won’t be served by the Internet. While millions of us read most of our news online, we still like to read newspapers and subscribe to them. That fewer people read newspapers means that they have to be made attractive to those who do read them and to advertisers who want to reach newspaper readers.

    Solving this puzzle won’t be easy. I don’t know of a major paper that has adjusted to the new market.

  • The tough nut, of course, is the debt. How do publishers deleverage?

    Can they get bondholders and other creditors to take their virtually worthless stock in exchange for the debt?

    Would the NYT and other publishers give up control to save their papers, or are they so “Pinched” that they can’t deal with the Internet age, the credit crisis and giving up their power?

  • I.F.Stoner

    Ed is a great guy whose years at Bloomberg — the only giant global media organization doing well these days — served him well in understanding that the old brick-and-mortar approaches simply will not work on the digital platform. It’s sad/ironic/schadenfreude-y that the old media types just keep trying to graft the old arrogant models onto the web. It just doesn’t work: Pathfinder, TimesSelect…need more hopeless failure examples?

    The execs at the old papers are mired in the arrogance of assuming their content is always “right” and fits the market. Hence, the NYT blames aggregators for their dismal failure, rather than looking in the mirror and asking “who in their right mind would have paid $50/mo to read Frank Rich or Maureen Dowd”?

    at Donald Johnson —> “Pinched.” Heh. That’s cute.

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  • Interesting post by Roussel. Wonder why there’s such a need for many commenters (and Jarvis) to declare a zero sum, print-vs-digital reality. Each form of communication offers advantages and drawbacks. As a newspaper editor who believes in digital communication, I can tell you that many people rely on print newspapers, including many who get some portion of news online. The answer isn’t to abandon that readership, but to keep our focus on informing people most effectively and engaging them as participants in their communities and stakeholders in the issues we cover. We should make better print newspapers and better use of our Web tools, including meaningful linkage with individual and institutional knowledge in our communities.

    We’re in transition; I like this line from Roussel’s suggestions, “The role of a newspaper company on the Web is to add value: look at a story from a number of angles, engage your audience, add multimedia.” Smart, knowledgeable, practical thinking. And best of all, constructive — too much energy by too many smart people is being wasted on insults and blame.

    Thanks for posting these, Jeff.

  • Andy Freeman

    > Buy the software and systems needed to make the business work. Self-development is a huge waste of money. Not invented here is stupid.

    (1) Are there software vendors producing appropriate software for digital newspapers? (Yes, there are plenty of point-tools, but ….)
    (2) Is software a major problem?

  • Andy Freeman

    > Giving away free pie is not a valid indicator of how much people love pie.

    Actually, it is. It’s just a lousy indicator of how much people are willing to pay for pie.

    It’s quite likely that people are willing to pay more for “digital news” than they paid for “paper news” if they get more value.

    Since the infrastructure is much cheaper (or paid for by the consumer – newspapers have to charge for the paper while consumers buy their own computers and net connections), more value should be easy.

    We’ve already seen several examples (1) more news, (2) more sources, (3) more personal, and there are probably many more.

    Heck – more accurate would probably be a huge win. However, that would require figuring out that a real “fact checker” is not someone who verifies that a source was accurately quoted.

    Note that the “gate keeper” model has problems when sources can be heard on their own/there’s no “exclusive” interview. I can read Volokh on first amendment law, so a journalist must either add value or be ignored.

    And no, being employed at a newspaper isn’t “adding value”.

  • Warren Jeffs

    “On the network question: It worked quite well for Google, eBay, craigslist, Skype, and some others. ”

    Google’s stock price is tanking and the firm is shedding employees in the form of contractors, eBay is laying off, and Skype hasn’t EVER generated revenue.

    Don’t be such a tech triumphalist, Jeffy. Your examples tend to counter your arguments.

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  • What people seem to missing is that we’re talking about more than the death of the metro newspaper.

    We’re talking about the death of “mass communications.”

    Consumers focus on granular reporting and analysis of news that affects their lives and professions.

    This is why metro papers, metro evening newscasts, network news and eventually, cable news will be replaced by specialized news and information resources such as, say, the NYT’s About.com, financial, technical and political blogs, etc.

    Suburban dailies and weeklies as well as online services that focus on neighborhood news will thrive. Daily metros and metro TV news sources will die due to a lack of consumer interest and therefore a lack of advertiser support.

    So the question is, if you had the backing of major venture capitalists who were able and willing to finance your startup without putting you deep in debt, what kind of business opportunity would you go after? And is it too early to try to replace tradition metro dailies, or not?

    People are creating such business models, I’m sure, and they’re likely to come to light during the next 36i months.

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