Dead-Tree Editions Are Soon To Be … uh … Dead?

Posted: July 19th, 2007 under journalism.
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BusinessWeek says out loud what many in newspapers have been wondering: When will the industry just concede defeat and migrate to the web?

Not soon, I think. 

All the case studies that I’ve been doing show that there is life yet in those thin sheets of ink-covered cellulose. As Bob Cauthorn put it years ago, "The problem isn’t with the format.  If that was the case, the readers would just be going to the online editions.  The problem is with the content."  In other words, newspapers aren’t focusing on giving their readers the news that they want/need – news about things that are relevant to them. Instead, we get the damn Paris Hilton-fest, the John Edwards haircut story, etc. etc. OK, yeah, these stories "pop a number."

But as I pointed out 10 years ago now, this kind of news is empty calories. It’s a bowl of Chee-tos, drowning in Mountain Dew, topped off by the cream filling sucked out of a dozen Twinkies for breakfast.

Just like junk food, the junk news has a deleterious effect on the consumer – and now, finally, on the provider.  The Paris Hilton-esque stories provide a short-term boost, but in the long term, I think the readers are turned off.  They get sick of the spectacle, of the empty hype.  How many times have you heard people complain about overblown, overhyped, empty stories in the last decade or so? How many times have you complained yourself?

Contrast this with the case study that I did on the Point Reyes Light, where the local paper really dug into stories that the community cared about, and did it in a way that reflected the community’s values. A newspaper that actually prints news about people that you know, or know of … a newspaper that prints stories about things that happen to people in your community, things that you’ve heard about … a newspaper that makes that little bell in your head go "Ding!" every morning, when you see a story that you know that you have to pay attention to because it’s happening right down the street …

That is a newspaper that you go back to. 

Because you know that the next time you go back to it, that paper is going to give you something that you can actually use, rather than a story that screams for your attention, and at the end, makes you feel shallow, ashamed and used.

At the risk of overwork the information = food metaphor too much, but I see parallels between the increasing movement to get some sanity back into our Fast-food Nation diets, to try to cut down on the "obesity epidemic" — such as the announcement today that the sugar-filled food manufacturers won’t be aiming as much advertising at kids as they were before.  And that Mickey D’s is putting apple slices into happy meals, rather than trans-fat soaked french fries … maybe American news consumers, aka "The People Formerly Known As The Audience," are slowly voting with their eyeballs, their mouse clicks, and their cancellation of ever-cheaper subscriptions, no matter what kinds of special offers the increasingly desperate circulation departments throw at them.

BizWeek has this to say:

2007 does not look materially kinder than 2006 for any of these papers. One senior executive describes the climate like this: "If you told me 24 months ago that revenues would be declining as much as they are today, I’d say you were smoking dope." Print newspapers require maintaining a costly status quo—paper, presses, trucks, and mail rooms—that, if only through rising gas prices, will only get more expensive.

WHEN, EXACTLY, do you junk something that no longer works? And which major paper should go first—not today, but within the next 18 or 24 months?

   San Francisco Chronicle, I’m looking at you.

Killing print requires acknowledging not just that the old mode is dead but also that the future means less revenue and shrunken staffs. This is why it makes sense soonest at a money-losing newspaper already grappling with those realities, and one in a major city that generates enough local ad dollars to support a sizable online business.

They go on to suggest that the Chronicle, in particular, leverage its great sfgate.com site to just boldly make the jump.  They say that maybe killing the paper edition and just going gonzo into the web edition, thus saving on paper costs, delivery trucks, printing presses, ink, etc., will save money, and that with the paper basically being the only game in town, advertisers will be forced to follow the paper onto the web-only platform if they still want to reach the Chronicle’s readers.  And that the paper could also just buy "tons of unsold local ad investory from teh likes of MySpace and Yahoo and then resell it profitably…"

Hmmm.  There is a part of me that says that maybe the time has come for making a Big Bold Move.  After all, how much worse can it get?  The last five years have been disastrous, and the future ain’t making me wear shades either.  I think that the time is coming when a major – or formerly major – newspaper is going to finally be the first penguin off the glacier.  I think that the Chronicle is actually a pretty good candidate for that type of a move – but I think that it’s something that’s going to have to be handled the way that Apple handled the release of the iPhone.  It has to be explained and talked about in advance, it has to be done as though it is going to be a game-changing move, and that way it accrues a sense of being Something You Must Pay Attention To.  If the move to the web is seen as being done only out of utter despair, then the audience will turn away. 

It’s like in Hollywood, where the one thing that nobody can stand is even the faintest whiff of desperation … if the readers think that the web is something that is being tried only because nothing else the Chronicle has done has worked, well then, what kind of a message does that send to the readers?  Does that make the new&improved online edition, into which all remaining resources are about to be poured, look like something great, new and vital?  Hell no.  It makes the online edition look like the wood shavings curling up under the fingernails of the newspaper, as it scrabbles desperately at the cornice, before falling off into the abyss.  Who wants to be associated with that?  Certainly not any advertiser.

Ken Brown also has a related, interesting take, in that he sees that journalists have to kick the Messiah Complex habit, and start thinking of themselves as providing a service for the readers … and that if they don’t properly provide that service, well, the customers certainly can, will and have gone elsewhere:

While the distinction may seem semantic, I think the industry’s
mistaken impression of itself underlies its fear and loathing of
readers’ migration online.

As a product, newspapers are doomed
— and their demise is coming a lot faster than many of us realize. But
as a service, journalism and the journalism business have unprecedented
opportunity. The sooner journalists start thinking of their business as
a service, the better equipped they’ll be for the changes ahead.

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