How to Bring Newspapers Back From the Dead

13Apr09

Everyone is lamenting the impending doom of the daily newspaper.  Costs for personnel and materials keep going up.  Ad revenues, which have been sinking for a long time have crashed with the economy.  Readership continues to dwindle as people turn to the web for updates on continuing stories.  By the time the newspaper hits the doorstep the contents are several hours old and many people find it irrelevant and start canceling their subscriptions.  Hit by lost revenue from another direction they end up forced to make staffing cuts which get seen as diminishing quality.  Lower circulation results in shrinking ad revenue.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

The Washington Times hopes they’ve have figured out how to avoid the upcoming death knell.  It is their “Citizen Journalist” project.  In every day’s paper they will have a full page of stories reported and written by “average citizens in local communities.”  Each day will concentrate on a different “community,” some geographic (Maryland and Virgina suburbs on Tuesday) some societal (charitable and public service community on Sunday).  They maintain that journalistic quality will not suffer.  The citizen journalists will be held to the same reporting standards as the regular writers.

First, let me apply a healthy dose on cynicism here.  They sure have figured out a way to cut costs–find free labor!  You had exactly what you are looking for from your “citizen journalists” a couple round of lay-offs ago.  They were called “beat reporters”!  You went to one of your reporters and told them, “I want you to get out in the (fill in the blank) area and find stories.  I want to know what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling.  What’s going on at the local schools, that sort of thing.”  If you wanted a bit more of an opinionated slant you turned to one of those people you used to have called “columnists”.

Glad I got that out of the way.  Seriously, this seems to be the direction newspapers need to go–be LOCAL.  Newspapers started out being close to the only way to get news from abroad.  Even though it was usually a few days old, that was fine since no other choice existed.  The telegraph made it easier to get  news faster, but you needed special equipment to receive the signals so newspapers were still useful in disseminating the information to a wider audience.  Radio was  the first real threat to newspapers; once the radio became relatively inexpensive to own, it was easy to get news from around the world right in your own living room.  Trouble was you did not have control over what you heard when, other than choosing from whatever stations were available.  Even if you settled down to the news program when it was on you had to listen to the stories in the order the broadcaster decided to air them.  Television was another step along the way, but had the same issues.  You had no way of deciding, “I think I’ll start with the sports today for a change.”  Cable TV was another step along the way with 24 hour news channels, s4 hour sports, 24 hour weather, etc.  You could at least have control over the general categories but not specific content.  (I don’t care about a stained blue dress, what the heck is going on in South Africa?)  Now we have the Internet.  The lovely, fabulous, fascinating, wonderful Internet.  Now we possess complete control over what stories we see, when we see them, what order we see them in, how long we spend on them, everything that gave newspapers an advantage over everything that has come before.  Newspapers can survive as long as they accept the fact that they have to adjust to changing times and change the way they do business.  One way to do that is GO LOCAL!

Case in point:  I looked through the front section of my local newspaper (the StarTribune) for Sunday, April 12, 2009.  There were 19 headlines (I am not counting the couple sidebar items or the news digest).  Four of them were written by staff writers.  One was from the Washington Post, five from the New York Times, and nine from the Associated Press.  What is going to compel me to go to the StarTribune for news and information?  Something I can’t get anywhere else.

Our newspapers need to give us the local angle on stories.  Maybe some should consider dropping the expense of syndicating the national stories if all we’re going to get is a word-for-word reprint of what can be found a dozen different places online.  Use that money to pay people to be out on the streets in our cities and towns.  If I want to know what kind of dog the Obama’s got I can find it in about half a second from thousands of different sources on the web.  But if I want to know what happened at the last city council meeting, I have trouble finding anything except the city’s own website.

New technologies have always had the potential to wipe out newspapers and have yet to succeed.  Like any business, the way to succeed is to give people something they want better than anyone else, cheaper than anyone else, or barring those something they can’t get anywhere else.  The future may include more online and less in print.  It may require restricting content.  Free acess to the StarTribune’s articles online is limited to 14 days.  One of the staff written articles is “Only in your Sunday paper.”  It will undoubtedly end up looking different than we are used to.  But I expect that the newspaper isn’t going to disappear completely.

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