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The Beginning of The End for Newspapers

There is no question in my mind that we are at the beginning of the end for newspapers. Tim O’Reilly jumps in this morning:

[from SF Chronicle in Trouble?]

I hate to play Valleywag, but I’m hearing rumors that the San Francisco Chronicle is in big trouble. Apparently, Phil Bronstein, the editor-in-chief, told staff in a recent “emergency meeting” that the news business “is broken, and no one knows how to fix it.” (“And if any other paper says they do, they’re lying.”) Reportedly, the paper plans to announce more layoffs before the year is out.

It’s clear that the news business as we knew it is in trouble. Bringing it home, Peter Lewis and Phil Elmer Dewitt, both well-known tech journalists, were both part of layoffs at Time Warner in January (they worked for Fortune and Time, respectively), and John Markoff remarked to me recently that “every time I talk to my colleagues in print journalism it feels like a wake.”

Meanwhile, Peter Brantley passed on in email the news that “a newspaper newsletter covering that industry publishes its own last copy”:

The most authoritative newsletter covering the newspaper industry issued a gloomy prognosis for the business today and then, tellingly, went out of business.

Many newspapers in the largest markets already “have passed the point of opportunity” to save themselves, says the Morton-Groves Newspaper Newsletter in its farewell edition. “For those who have not made the transition [by now], technology and market factors may be too strong to enable success.”

Buffett said that newspapers are “a business in permanent decline.” Stowe also hits out hard this morning: “We should stop wringing our hands for the moribund local newspapers. They are going under. Period. Full stop.”

There are several drivers:

  1. We get information digitally, most newspapers haven’t made this easy or convenient.I drive over what lands in my driveway. I read what lands in my inbox.
  2. Information is live. Most newspaper sites aren’t. We want live news, not dead news.
  3. Content is a commodity (that doesn’t mean it isn’t unique or valuable – just look at all the money made selling pork bellies and salt). If I get content – even their content – from my personal network, why would I pay to subscribe? Doc says this well: “Stop calling everything “content”. It’s a bullshit word that the dot-commers started using back in the ’90s as a wrapper for everything that could be digitized and put online. It’s handy, but it masks and insults the true natures* of writing, journalism, photography, and the rest of what we still, blessedly (if adjectivally) call “editorial”. Your job is journalism, not container cargo.” Right!
  4. Their content is mostly irrelevant or of no value to me. I’m less and less interested in what they write about. The local community I care about isn’t geographic. It’s a mash-up of topics, interests and locations that I build myself in my RSS reader.
  5. Their business model is flawed. Print advertising has been replaced by more efficient mediums (CraigsList, eBay, LinkedIn). Better deliver mechanisms mean I don’t need paper dropped in my driveway. My community is a better prioritizer of news, and feeder of content.

Doc has a good list of what Newspapers might do. His most compelling advise (for me) is that they have to figure out how to encourage participation from their communities. That means linking, pointing, incorporating bloggers, allowing photos to be posted to the site by readers. If you’ve got a printing press – even a virtual one – why not unlock it for all to use?

3 Responses

  1. By Jonny Bentwood on April 20th, 2007 at 9:04 am

    I believe that newspapers are on the decline but the demand for content is on the increase. At 3GSM the big thing was content for phones, at work I demand content constantly but don’t pick up the papers, instead I use RSS.

    Looking at the earthquake in Mexico recently, Twitter reported it before other media. Does this make all forms of offline communication a dying breed?

    What makes this interesting is the way that new forms of communication that cross geographies and create communities like never before are revolutionising the norm for the way that people find out about news. Where people historically were glued to CNN I wonder whether the future will see us having one eye looking at Twitter?

    My post backs this up.

    • By Margarita on July 4th, 2012 at 7:49 pm

      >>To summarize, I think it could be a sauelpmentpl revenue source for newspapers that publish high-quality, niche content. And only if the paywall goes up in front of the high-quality content and not across the whole site because there is no business in charging for commodity news. <<IMHO, you've just about nailed it there! I too doubt if the pay-for-content model (so far as news etc. is concerned) will ever meet with much success online.

  2. By Peter Childs on May 15th, 2007 at 5:12 am

    There’s no doubt that newspapers are under threat, as is all media as the number of choices proliferate and peoples time to consume them remains the same, or decreases due to an always on work world.

    That said some papers are embracing the opportunity and augmenting their strong newsrooms, and analysis / story telling, with multimedia and interactivity. Look at the Washington Posts OnBeing as an example – or a recent story on ‘itinerate’ musicians that had three video clips, 45 minutes of streaming audio and generated about 650 comments from readers.

    Canada’s Globe & mail is doing the same.

    These papers understand that when re-printing an wire story for a local audience isn’t protect-able – but that a papers strong story telling can be leveraged in a multimedia world.

    Other papers are using the web to explore new relationships between reporters and the public – again increasing their relevance by using the web.

    Newspapers may change – but I doubt they are dead.

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