Tonight I read Time Magazine’s forum piece entitled The Future of Newspapers, in which several big-wigs talk about what comes next for the newspaper industry — and found myself alternately nodding my head in agreement and tossing up my hands in frustration. It’s astonishing that some of these people still don’t seem to get it. Some quotes and my responses after the jump.
“The word newspaper is going to disappear. We’ll talk about ‘news’ rather than ‘newspapers’ because there are going to be so many other ways that people get their news. Newspaper companies are becoming information companies.”— Scott Bosley, Executive Director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors
I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. In order to thrive, newspaper companies need to diversify into other mediums (TV, radio, magazines, and most importantly, the Internet), and create narrow-focused online sites covering specific niches for specific audiences (you’ll see some of this out of World Online very soon).
“But we’ll continue to have newspapers in print because people appreciate the way they’re organized and the tactile experience. They’ll be smaller, slimmer and more targeted.”— Scott Bosley, Executive Director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors
I also agree here. This Scott guy seems to be on the same page as me. Print news isn’t going away anytime soon. I do see it becoming more magazine-like, though — both in the physical sense and with regard to the content provided. I also see many daily and weekly print papers eventually becoming a “best-of” edition of the online version of the publication. Whereas an online publication might publish 50 stories, 150 photos, 500 user comments and five podcasts per day, for example, the print publication might choose the 25 top stories, 30 best photos, 50 great user comments, and transcripts of two of the podcasts to go in the next day’s print edition.
“Newspapers have three attributes that will for a time, make them still relevant. They are low-cost or no cost, they are highly portable, and you can scan through more bits of information on a printed news page faster than you can on a PC, online, on a PDA or on a cell phone.”— Andrew Davis, President of the American Press Institute
These may be three advantages of a print paper today (although I think most web-based papers are low-cost or no-cost, as well) — but all of them won’t be for long. Everyone knows that web browsing devices are getting more and more mobile every day, and advances in both hardware and web design will eventually make it every bit as easy to scan through an online edition as a print version. I hope Andrew isn’t counting on these three things to take him very many years into the future.
“In 30 years, the Web will be a much stronger component, but you will still see a powerful print product that people want to pick up and read. ”— John Kimball, Chief Marketing Officer for the Newspaper Association of America
In 30 years? 30 years? Seriously? I assert that within five years most news companies will see their online effort(s) as their most important asset(s) — if they don’t already.
“If you take a look at our company, the Dallas Morning News, what are the things that are growing the fastest? Not the Dallas Morning News you get in a bag on the lawn. That generates a few hundred million in revenues, but it’s not growing fast. What is growing is Quick, a five-day-a-week free distribution paper, and Al Dia, a very serious newspaper, a Spanish publication we started a few years ago. ”— Bob Mong, Editor of the Dallas Morning News
Again, this suggests that narrowly-focused publications are a key (in print or online). At World Online, we talk a lot about what we call “hyper-localism.” That is to say, we can’t complete with CNN and the New York Times on national and world news, but we can cover our local markets better than anyone else. You will almost never find a non-local story on the home page of LJWorld.com. Why? Because we don’t believe that’s what people come to LJWorld.com for. They come to us for news about Lawrence — they’ll go to CNN.com or similar if they’ll looking for national or world stories.
So, “hyper-local” is one way to go. But another is what I’ve been calling “hyper-topical.” Pick a single topic and cover it better than anyone else. Chances are,most newspapers already cover something better than anyone else. Make that — whatever it is — your niche. Figure out what it is and cover it more thoroughly than anyone ever dreamed possible. There’s no such thing as overkill.
“Andy Grove went to the American Society of Newspaper Editors and told them [in 1999] that they had three years before their whole business would change. Well, they don’t have three years, they probably have 30 years ”— Jeffrey Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California
These guys like this 30 year proposal, don’t they? He goes on to say:
“Thirty years ago teens didn’t read newspapers, but they started when they reached their 30s. Today, teens don’t read newspapers and they never will. If there were a newspaper strike across America today, almost no one under the age of 30 would notice. ”— Jeffrey Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California
I’m not sure how this jives with his suggestion that newspapers have 30 years before their industry will change. To me, this means print newspapers will basically never get another subscriber. That means zero revenue growth on subscriptions — and actually, it means a decrease, because they’re going to lose subscribers to death and the Internet. Are your shareholders going to stand for that for the next 30 years?
“But we need to train journalists for multimedia reporting. They need to move from being just print reporters to being comfortable taking photos and doing audio and video. ”— Karen Dunlap, President of the Poynter Journalism Institute
Exactly. This goes along with the “there are no more newspaper companies, only news companies” mentality. All reporters need to be multimedia reporters. They need to be able to go out into the field, gather interviews in audio and video and edit them digitally, gather data and provide it to their website staff in machine-parseable formats, take photos and be able to crop and color-correct them, and engage in dialog with the readers (news should not be a one-way communication). Every reporter should be armed with a digital camera (still and video), a digital audio recorder, and a cell phone. The seems simple to those of us who already carry these things everyday — but convincing a writer who got into journalism 30 years ago because he/she loves writing feature stories is not so easy.
The newspaper industry isn’t in as much peril as some people make it out to be. But it’s clear that the industry needs to adapt — and while some news companies are doing a wonderful job, others either aren’t trying hard enough or simply don’t know what to do.
In some ways, I feel the local news sources actually have a much bigger opportunity to sustain their business online. In most smaller markets, there isn’t much competition. A newspaper company ought to be able to build the de facto online resource for folks in their community — they’ve already got a major leg up by having a strong brand and a wealth of content. The larger market news sources — those that focus on world and national news as much or more than local — are going to find themselves in a much more competitive online marketplace. I think they’re going to have to find other niches to focus on and make their own. They’re also going to find themselves in more direct competition with technology companies like Yahoo and Google (both also have their sights set on local coverage, as well — but I think they’ll be more a factor on the larger scales, at least for quite a while).
It’s an interesting and exciting industry to be involved in right now. I’m still pretty new to all this journalism business, having worked at World Online for a little less than a year. I’m no expert — but even still, I’m not sure all the experts quoted above really “get it,” either. Everyone is still feeling their way through this new media, it seems.