Friday, August 01, 2008

Better Dead than (un)Read

Newspapers, as we all know by now, are feeling a world of hurt (here for example or from the Newspaper Association of America for another). The product they sell, mostly local ads, has been diverted to online only ventures. Classified ads represent 63% of newspaper revenue. The news that used to draw an audience is largely available for free online. Combined with the static nature of the medium, newspapers have reduced their size, their employee base and their share of people's attention.

A prescription to save the patient from certain death is written by Doc (all pun intended) Searls (he of last decade's hot book, The Cluetrain Manifesto). On his blog, he suggests that newspapers have two advantages they should leverage:

  • Their archives
  • Their editorial page
The archive is a wonderful idea, though I suspect it would be a one-time advantage. Perhaps I'm interested in researching old news (like this), but the revenue approach Searl's suggests (targetted advertising) requires a leap of faith that it would outperform the current subscription models... Another challenge: once the archive of one paper is available, how is one newspaper's version of the news in, say, 1945 going to be worth more than another's? All of which sounds a bit like hope and prayer, not medicine...but what is there to lose in trying?

The other thought, making the editorial content the star makes some sense: Put it on the front page. Invite the community to steer the conversation. Have the crazy lady with the letter to the editor about her neighbor's loud parties (or the anonymous 'Sound off' call in) be the headline.

Might get some attention, but even the good Doc has to admit that it doesn't address the chronic problems for newspapers. Self-defined communities expect always-on, near realtime access and interaction. Newspapers move too slow and trade a product--in print--that is priced higher than the online a diverse community, a single vehicle will have a hard time addressing many conversations taking place online already...newspapers would be late to this game.

Smarter minds are certainly exploring the issue, but I think that a move online is step one (papers need to cut production and distribution costs further, faster, first). Reduce the costs of print by letting individuals print off the news they want on their home printers. Then, take the savings and invest it in their writing, reporting and in enabling interaction...papers will have to compete with everyone else online...For some reporters, the result may end up paying off more in sweat equity than in salary. Competing wiith free is hard work.

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