Newspapers and Buggy Whips

There is a desperate search for relevance and a way to pay the bills among the newspaper crowd as the recession has accelerated to warp speed the creative destruction of once great institutions.

I’ll spare you my theories on why this fate has come crashing down so hard on the press.  Instead I think it time to do a little forensic analysis on just what is a newspaper and why do we need one?

In the ‘olden days’, as my smart mouth kids like to tease me—what did you actually do before there was the Internet, Dad?  I resist the temptation to blurt out—watch it kid, you were conceived on one of those quests for something to do!

But it does beg the question of why we came to be so attached to newspapers and why that is changing.  For generations, newspapers had a monopoly on the distribution of new news.  EXTRA EXTRA—used to actually mean something as late breaking events were memorialized in print ASAP and sold to eager crowds on street corners.  Then there were the columnists and editorial writers who interpreted the news for us, investigated and questioned our leaders, and took positions on the issues of the day to frame our thinking.

No one ever made enough money selling subscriptions to the news in newspapers or any form of media.  The money came from putting advertising in front of the eyeballs of a target audience, in a targeted market at a targeted time.  Before the internet and wireless technology, newspapers were simply the most efficient way to drive both product sales and news distribution just like that buggy whip speeded up the horse to get the deliveries home from the general store in those ‘olden days’.

The General Store gave way to Sears and JC Penney, and then to Target and Wal-Mart, or to Gap, J Crew or Victoria Secrets depending upon your appetites.  The demise of newspapers is no different.  Some say newspapers are dying off because their views are slanted, or their cost structure is bloated, or they are either too small to succeed or too big to fail.  None of this is true, newspapers are dying off because there are becoming obsolete just like those buggy whips.

The answer for newspapers is NOT micropayments as a way of desperately clinging to revenue from a declining revenue stream.  The answer is probably not just moving the content online and selling subscriptions to the same old thing delivered electronically.

Because the future of newspapers is NOT about newspapers it is about their customers.

The future of newspapers is to rediscover the reasons we pick up a newspaper in the first place and then find new technologies for satisfying that demand.

So why do we pick up a newspaper?

  1. Wassup? That’s the question my kids ask me when I pick up the phone to say hello—and it is that same original role newspapers once played that has been usurped by Tweets and Yahoo and a thousand other electronic sources.  It’s going away—quit chasing it—at least at the global and national level.  In business terms the answer here is let it go online and be an aggregator.
  2. Did you hear about _ _ _ _ _! Beat reporters were the life blood of newspaper copy.  They ferreted out stories or tracked down interesting events or people to create news worthy content.  Today this hometown news—mostly good news stories or coverage of neighborhood or local issues—often is covered by the free handout news sheets which still contain advertising from realtors, restaurants and other local business both online and in flyers.  Will it last?  It might since often these news sheets are the only source of truly local stories.  They are published weekly and support the needs of local merchants targeting a local market.  These are the internships for future journalists and those who love to write or are nosey enough to go to public meetings and tell their neighbors what they heard.
  3. I Need to buy/sell a _ _ _ _ _! Classified advertising was bread and butter revenue for newspapers but falling readership, the rise of online sites for cars, houses, eBay and other stuff plus Craig’s List is killing off this part of the newspaper business.  The business model is ride it down and scale it back as revenue retreats this is going online fast.
  4. Wassup with That? Investigative journalism still has a place that can not be easily occupied by internet sources.  Investing in a high quality investigative journalism unit that does good work and either shops the stories it produces to others or gets paid a retainer by a syndicate of players to produce content is a solid recurring revenue business model that could be adapted and used.  The same business problem will face local broadcasters so there ought to be a market at the local, regional/state, and national level for investigative journalism “consultants” who produce this stuff and sell it to others.
  5. How Come? Like investigative journalism, questioning our leaders and digging into the meat of stories to produce content and opinion can be supported by a variety of revenue sources that include syndication, retainers, and recurring revenue sales of columns on a regular basis or investigative pieces on an “as available” basis.
  6. So What does that Mean to Me? Editorial positions are what separated those in the newspaper business who interpreted the news from the news gathers reporting “the facts”.  Being a syndicated columnist selling your opinion to many newspapers is an well tested business model that still works today. This is also a star system as evidenced by the number of former politicians taking to the TV airwaves and cable shows waxing eloquently on the issues of the day.  They will get paid by the TV shows, radio programs, and subscription sites—or all of them for their views.

The newspaper as we have known it traditionally is dying, but the reasons we bought newspapers live on in new technology, with new business models, and many more participants in the business of news gathering, investigating, interpreting, aggregating and spouting off.