Newspapers Still Ain’t Gettin’ It

Friend and comics artist extraordinaire Coleen Doran sent me a link to a page of media news, and it caused me to realize that I haven’t railed lately about the stupidity inherent in the bloated and Jurassic newspaper industry.

This post, I hope, will remedy that situation.

Cartoon © Milt Priggee

That attitude pretty much sums up the general consensus in newspaper boardrooms across the country. Newspapers don’t want to evolve — instead they just want to make a few superficial and cosmetic changes — start charging higher prices, start charging for portions of the paper that used to be included with the paper (the tv section in the Times-Dispatch, for example) — and sit back and proclaim that they’ve changed with the times.

Not hardly. The times have already changed, the newspapers missed all the signs, and now the asteroid of evolution slamming hard into their tiny, insular planet with an unimaginable economic force.

The metro daily will not survive.

Here’s the link Colleen sent me, but the important points I’d like to mention are:

Swedish-based Metro International is selling off its network of US free papers, while keeping on operations in other countries:

Metro Int’s finance officer Anders Kronborg said the sale of the loss-making US operations was part of the company’s strategy to get through the economic and financial crisis.

This also includes the closure of Metro’s Spanish operations, announced in January, and savings made from relocating the company’s head office from London to Stockholm.

“I don’t see any growth in the market this year or in 2010,” Kronborg said. Meanwhile, Metro Int is focusing on Latin America, Asia and Russia, where the prospects for the advertising market are better than in the US and Europe.

So, they see no newspaper growth in the US until 2011.

Damn. That’s actually optimistic. I don’t expect holistic newspaper market growth until 2015, at least.

Then there’s William Randolph Hearst wannabe Rupert Murdoch:

remember how News Corp will make readers pay “handsomely” for online content? So what’s the plan? MICRO-PAYMENTS.

News Corp is planning to introduce “micro payments” for individual articles and premium subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal’s website, WSJ Managing Editor Robert Thomson said on Sunday.

“It’s a payments system — once we have your details we will be able to charge you according to what you read, in particular, a high price for specialist material,” Thomson said in an e-mailed response to Reuters questions.

Earlier the Financial Times said the move would be a milestone in the news industry’s search for better business models for online outlets and quoted Thomson as saying the micro payments service would launch this autumn.

Micropayments may actually work for the Financial Times and the WSJ, because they’re niche markets and the ones who read them — professionals — have the disposable cash — ie, the office will pay for it. But it’s been proven that micropayments won’t work for metro-daily newspapers online, nor will charging for subscriptions. (Take a look through some of my past posts about papers if you don’t believe me.)

Regular people will refuse to pay — and rightly so.

And while these masturbatory and pointless exercises are being frothed over in boardrooms, Sen. John Kerry has been hosting hearings in D.C. all about saving newspapers — although he has no idea how to save them, he knows trouble when he sees it:

Kerry said steps must be taken so that news media can stay diverse and independent, but he wasn’t sure what role government should play in those steps.

“As a means of conveying news in a timely way, paper and ink are less in vogue, eclipsed by the power, efficiency and technological elegance of the Internet,” Kerry said as he opened the hearing. “But just looking at the erosion of newspapers is not the full picture; it’s just one casualty of a completely shifting and churning information landscape.”

An evolving landscape:

“High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the Web or anywhere else,” [David] Simon said.

Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post, a Web site of opinion and news, said that despite all the hand-wringing about the decline of the newspaper industry, these are good times for news consumers.

Huffington said the future of journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers.

“No, the future is to be found elsewhere,” she said. “It is a linked economy. It is search engines. It is online advertising. It is citizen journalism and foundation-supported investigative funds. That’s where the future is.”

Sen. Kerry’s hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, is owned by the New York Times Co. Both metro dailies have been going through massive problems, which were Kerry’s primary reasons for initiating the newspaper hearings. Now, after an infusion of cash from a Mexican investor, there’s breaking news out of Los Angeles: David Geffen wants a major stake in the NYT.

All I can make out of all of this is that chaos is rampant; change is not coming — it’s already here; and smart people will move the newspaper industry forward, making necessary changes, while the dinosaurs in the upper floors of most of the other metro dailies will just blink a lot in uncomprehending anger as their little worlds are torn apart by forces others have seen on the horizon for years.

Hey — can I borrow 50 cents for the TV section? Never mind — the listings are free on my tv . . . and on the Internet . . . and on my cell phone . . .

News in a Death Spiral…and They’re Pressing the Gas Pedal!

There is nothing more horrifying than stupidity in action.
• Adlai E. Stevenson

Here’s a press release from the mighty brains behind “Journalism Online.”

See that? There’s one big hint that this venture will not be successful. Internet success stories use originality in their very names. Online book store? Amazon. Online shoe store? Zappo’s.

Online journalism? Journalism Online.

I can smell the corpse beginning to stink already!

The press release is reprinted in its entirety, but here’s the link. My comments, if you care to read them, will be obvious.

• • •

Media Leaders Form Journalism Online, LLC

Company Will Be Global Platform for Easy Payment Option Enabling New Revenue Models For News In Time of Crisis
Charging for content will only exacerbate the crisis…

‘Strong interest’ already expressed by major newspaper, magazine companies
Because they have nowhere else to turn, and they’re all looking for a savior.

NEW YORK, April 14, 2009 – Citing “the urgent need” for a comprehensive, immediate plan to address the downward spiral in the business of publishing original, quality journalism,
It IS the business that’s the real problem, not the journalism
experienced journalism and media industry executives Steven Brill, Gordon Crovitz, and Leo Hindery today announced the formation of Journalism Online, a company that will quickly facilitate the ability of newspaper, magazine and online publishers to realize revenue from the digital distribution of the original journalism they produce. Unless the public refuses to pay for it any longer…and that’s exactly what’s happening.

“We have formed Journalism Online, because we think this is a special moment in time when there is an urgent need for a business model that allows quality journalism to be the beneficiary of the Internet’s efficient delivery mechanism rather than its victim,” said co-founder Steven Brill. Sour grapes. They’re pissed because they don’t want Internet content to be free any more. Too bad, bitches. “We believe we have developed a strategy and a set of services that will establish that model by restoring a stream of circulation revenue to supplement advertising revenue, while taking advantage of the savings to be gained from producing and delivering content electronically.”

The company will offer four key services to publishers.

First, Journalism Online will develop a password-protected website with one easy-to-use account through which consumers will be able to purchase annual or monthly subscriptions, day passes, and single articles from multiple publishers. The password-enabled payment system will be integrated into all of the member-publishers’ websites, and the publishers will have sole discretion over which content to charge for, how much to charge, and the manner of charge. And consumers will refuse to go there and pay for a damn thing. Why is this so hard for newspaper people to fathom?

“The website will provide a way for publishers of quality journalism to charge whatever they believe is a reasonable amount for their content in ways that are seamlessly convenient for readers,” explained co-founder Leo Hindery. Charging is not convenient at all. Nor is a system of varying prices “convenient,” except to the greedy publishers. “The only condition of participation is that the publishers have to charge for some portion of their content,” he explained. “They can do this while also offering the first portion of all articles for free (old-fashioned “tease” model — it’s bullshit), or by making a certain number of articles free each month for potential customers to sample (pricktease model #2), or by employing any other strategy they choose to balance the prospect of online circulation revenue with the need to maintain traffic and advertising revenue.” Starting to reek down here. Somebody open a window!

Second, Journalism Online will aggressively market all-inclusive annual or monthly subscriptions for those consumers who want to pay one fee to access all of the JOI-member publishers’ content. Revenues will be shared among publishers. Zero divided by zero still equals zero.

“This will allow readers the option of one simple subscription to a full range of quality content, while offering publishers a new revenue stream to support journalism, supplementing online advertising revenues,” said co-founder Gordon Crovitz. “This way, when a story from a publisher that is not one that a consumer usually reads ‘pops’ in popularity and becomes prominent, that publisher will benefit from all of the interest in it in a way that would not happen if the reader had to have a separate subscription to that paper.” Applying 19th century newspaper models to a 21st century technology is only going to make newspapers spiral faster into the ground. When are they going to get that they can no longer think in the old ways?

“We will market this feature aggressively, and proudly, because we believe that quality journalism is something that people understand must be supported,” Brill added. Plus, we’re greedy bastards, and you cant’ have it for free! So there! Nyah nyah nyah! “We’ve all heard some people say that Internet journalism needs to be free because other less-valuable content is free,” Brill continued. Wrong. That’s the way you want to perceive it. The fact is, content is free because users will not pay for it. Period. I’m in the news business, and I refuse to pay for it. Doesn’t that tell you something? “But we believe Americans know that advertising alone can’t support quality journalism – and the truth is that it never has.” Following old tradition is like following an old horse — you’re going to step in shit all along the way. In the 21st century, the paradigms of readership have changed. No one is buying the news because they can get it on tv and elsewhere for free. It is no longer the important product it used to be. The irony is that by using the Internet publishers of newspapers and magazines have dramatically improved the quality and breadth of their journalism with online updates, video reports, blogs, data analyses, and specialized beat coverage. The problem is that, with rare exceptions, they are getting paid nothing for it.” It’s the medium of the Internet. Get used to it. You aren’t going to change user behavior — you can’t. They will, instead, change the newspaper industry.

Third, a key initiative of Journalism Online will be to negotiate wholesale licensing and royalty fees with intermediaries such as search engines and other websites that currently base much of their business models on referrals of readers to the original content on newspaper, magazine and online news websites. Good luck with that. You’re not going to get a penny out of Google.

The company has appointed to its board of advisors New York attorney David Boies and Washington, D.C. attorney Theodore B. Olson, who is also former Solicitor General of the U.S. The law firm of Boies Schiller has been retained to assist in negotiations, as well as to counsel the venture and its publisher members on other legal and regulatory issues. In other words, they’re going to try and force the search engines and consumers to pay for news. They’re going to strongarm aggregators — whose links jump back to the news sites — and perhaps even bloggers when news is reported. Man, I hate bullies.

“We intend to help establish a more stable relationship between referral intermediaries and those who produce, at great cost, the content that is so important in ensuring that the Internet remains a powerful way for people to access the most important news and information,” explained Crovitz. We’re gonna strangle the cash out of them. And if you say extortion again, I’ll break your legs. “Whether it’s traditional news people or online-only journalists and bloggers doing the work, there are real costs associated with the quality journalism that helps create enormous value to search engines and other online services that don’t incur these expenses. Journalism Online will enable news publishers to negotiate from a position of strength. Bullies. Consumers will benefit because they will have greater choice HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, and search engines and other intermediaries will benefit because they will have access to more journalism.” Lies, bullshit, spin — really, is there any difference?

Fourth, Journalism Online will provide reports to member publishers on which strategies and tactics are achieving the best results in building circulation revenue while maintaining the traffic necessary to support advertising revenue. “Our members will be engaged in a bold new effort to recreate the journalism business model,” Hindery said. “We’ll be sharing reports and metrics from the front lines of that battle and, if asked, even consult with members on how to maximize the value for the journalism they invest in.” So the “experts” really think their 1850-1950 newspaper ideas are going to stand up to the merging here and now of news and technology? I’d help them dig their grave, but they’re doing well enough on their own.

“We’re convinced that publishers are ready to take this step and that the journalists who work with them are anxious for them to do so,” Hindery added. Journalists just want to keep their jobs, dude. Get a clue. “Both groups now believe that they can and must receive fair value for their online work. Passing the costs onto the consumer is gonna kick you in your journonuts. Whether it’s the smaller newspapers or online news sites with their unique local content, larger-city publications with their strong regional content, or national publications, all of them will be able finally to realize the value of the unique, original stories their journalists work so hard to produce.”

“We’re also convinced,” Brill added, “that readers, who have been paying billions of dollars a year for print journalism, will continue to support journalists by paying a modest, fair price for original, independent, professional work distributed online. They realize—as we do—that quality journalism is a vital component of a functioning democracy and free market.” Like consumers care about a functioning democracy and free market when they’re looking for the weather report.

“My experience with The Wall Street Journal taught me that people will pay a reasonable price to access exclusive, differentiated and essential journalism, whether delivered in print or online,” Crovitz explained. The WSJ is an essential to financial professionals across the country. Specialized markets can clearly charge for content, because it is absolutely needed by their readers. General news is a different product — and the dinosaurs still aren’t getting it. “News publishers, including digital-only operations, need to find ways to attract revenues from readers as well as from advertisers. Viable journalism enterprises need both, and we believe the solution must include state-of-the-art technology, smart pricing options and creative, aggressive marketing based on best practices for monetizing online content and services.” Oh, and suing search engines and aggregators eventually.

“We have had initial talks, and in many cases longer follow-up discussions, with most of the major newspaper and magazine publishers, as well as many online journalism enterprises,” Brill said. “They have all been extremely encouraging and expressed strong interest. They have nowhere else to turn — it doesn’t mean yours is a good or viable idea. It’s clear that this is exactly the right time for us to proceed as quickly as possible. It’s equally clear,” he concluded, “that our multi-faceted approach is what publishers are looking for (but not consumers), and that the combination of services we are offering—one password account and payment processing system for multiple publishers, an equally-simple subscription alternative for all content from all members, engagement from a position of strength with intermediary users of original content, and a clearinghouse for information on best practices—presents the best way for consumers and publishers alike to preserve quality journalism.”

Brill, the founder of Court TV, The American Lawyer, and Brill’s Content, most recently founded and was CEO of Clear, the airport biometric fast-pass security card. He also founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.

As publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Crovitz grew to become the largest paid news site on the Web, with more than one million paying subscribers. Crovitz, who founded the news-database Factiva and is a member of the board of directors of ProQuest and an advisor to several early-stage technology and online media companies, has long experience in using digital technologies to help news publishers generate significant and highly profitable revenues from readers and users.

Hindery, a longtime media executive whose positions have included being CEO of cable giants TCI and AT&T Broadband, is managing partner of InterMedia Partners, a media industry private equity firm. He currently sits on the board of advisors of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

• • •

HEREWITH MY CONCLUSIONS: The Internet is a new and original idea that newspapermen not only despise, but they are scared shitless of. Because everything is changing; their little, insular world is in massive upheaval, and they’re so stupid they don’t know how to run out of the way.

The subscription and micropayment models will never work with anything other than highly specialized web publications. But I can only repeat this so much. When the metropolitan dailies finally crash to earth, they’ll see the new reality all around them — and they still won’t figure out what to do.

There is no adequate defense, except stupidity, against the impact of a new idea.
•Percy W. Bridgman

If you quote it, they won’t come

One thing the dinosaurs in the newspaper industry just keep on doing is using phrases and clichés that show just how outside the times they truly are. They quote defunct newspaper comic strips and thirty year-old movies in an effort to connect with the contemporary public, completely unaware that these maxims are no longer valid — they are, at best, like all clichés: wisdom gone stale.

And they wonder why the young people refuse to read newspapers. Damn kids.

The latest, laughable salvo in the “We have to do something about those whippersnappers on the Internet!” war has been fired by the Geriatric Fleet. Please read, “AP Shakes Fist at Google, Tells Internet to Get Off Its Damn Lawn” and ask yourself . . .

“Where’s the beef?”

Times-Dispatch Death Watch

Media General released news of a corporate reorganization that looks simple on the surface, yet very telling on another level.

Instead of looking at its operations as three types of media – publishing, broadcasting and interactive – Media General is going to organize and manage the company by geography, with all properties in a given market reporting to a market leader, regardless of platform. . . .

Virginia/Tennessee – James A. Zimmerman. He is currently President of the Broadcast Division. In 2008, the VA/TN market had revenues of approximately $235 million.

Florida – John R. Schueler. He is currently President, Florida Communications Group. In 2008, the FL market had revenues of approximately $215 million.

Mid-South – John R. Cottingham. He is currently Senior Vice President, Broadcast Stations. The Mid-South market includes South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. In 2008, the Mid-South market had revenues of approximately $170 million.

North Carolina – James R. Conschafter. He is currently Senior Vice President, Broadcast Stations. In 2008, the NC market had revenues of approximately $105 million.

Ohio/Rhode Island – Richard E. Rogala. He is currently Vice President and General Manager, WCMH-TV Columbus, Ohio. In 2008, the OH/RI market had revenues of approximately $62 million.

I noticed the same thing the reporting website concluded:

RBR/TVBR observation: We can’t help but notice that all of the new market segments will be headed by people from the Broadcast Division.

The real question is why aren’t there any newspaper executives in this line-up? Why is broadcast leading the charge?

Or maybe the bow ties at MG are finally getting it.

Dinosaurs can’t reach for the future.

They have only one possible fate.

Newspapers: Still knock-knock-knockin’ on Heaven’s door

Turn on the life support! The papers are still dying, no one knows what to do, the dinosaurs are still tying their bow ties too tight and having spasms because they might lose their executive bonuses!

Crack the whip, fire somebody and raise the subscription rates! Here’s a round-up of the latest news all about the onrushing death of newspapers:

• The McClatchy Co. is cutting 15% of its workforce — 1600 jobs — in an effort to survive.

“Newspapers are dead, ‘Wired’ editor says”

• The New York Times sold off 21 floors in its own building for a cash flow of $225 mill. They’re now renting those floors back because it’s ultimately cheaper.

• There’s still no buyer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It’s being denied, but there are real hints that print operations will be closing, well, right around the corner.

• Tennessee’s four largest dailies, in an effort, probably, to cut jobs and still maintain a certain level of journalism, are now sharing content as of last week.

• Gannett’s Coloradoan is moving its printing to Denver and slashing 48 jobs.

• “Days of ignorance are descending rapidly. The newspaper in its current form is becoming extinct. The editor of Wired said as much last week. It will happen, but there will be this dead zone between the newspapers deaths and the development of online reporting where there is a huge demand for information. Lets just hope the void is filled somehow.”
Conor Gallagher SF News Media Examiner (full story here)

• Closer to home, Richmond’s Media General is shifting two of their North Carolina papers from a five-day a week schedule to only two days a week.

Time has listed their picks for the top 10 most endangered newspapers in the country:

1. The Philadelphia Daily News
2. The Minneapolis Star Tribune
3. The Miami Herald
4. The Detroit News
5. The Boston Globe
6. The San Francisco Chronicle
7. The Chicago Sun-Times
8. The New York Daily News
9. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
10. The Cleveland Plain Dealer

That’s all the news that’s fit to print . . . online . . . ’cause the suits certainly won’t print it in the Times-Dispatch . . .

The dinosaurs still can’t face reality

By accident I discovered an online forum where newspaper people can discuss the issues pertaining to the industry, and you can visit it here.

What I find of most interest is the same, defiant, old-man-on-the-porch mentality that I think you’ll find in most metropolitan daily newsrooms: the stick yer head in the sand and yer ass in the air, all-around denial mentality that the newspaper doesn’t need to change, that they’re not losing audience, and that they’re keeping up with the 21st century.

Look at the topics on that forum. By no means is any newspaper keeping up with the times if they have to ask themselves:

Which is better, covering people’s wants or their needs?

Should we go to a 100% advertiser-supported business model?

Should articles be sexy?

Is the death of newspapers all hogwash?

What I think:

If you give readers more of what they want, you’ll sell more copies and increase revenue.

If you give them free newspapers, circulation will probably rise, and you will then justify raising ad rates.

Damn straight. The more sex, the better. Isn’t it time to grow up and stop being afraid of boobies?

If you even THINK about using the word hogwash, you are not keeping up with the times, and your paper deserves to be put to death.

Publishers, CEOs, Editors, Reporters: the newspaper — YOUR newspaper — has to evolve.

That means YOU have to change your primordial ways of thinking . . . or all the dinosaurs will be driven to the extinction they deserve.

Part II: Newspapers Must Evolve…and Right Now

Welcome to the second part of this creature that might be an essay. I began it yesterday with Part I: Is News Dying Along with Newspapers? Part II should, rightly, be subtitled, How a Smart-Ass with 14 years Experience in Newspapers Thinks Newspapers Have to Evolve . . . and Survive.

Look, you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: This is crunch time for print journalism. The old ways are dying, but newspapermen (and -women) are reluctant to give up their valued traditions. Hence, I believe, the major conflict in newspaper offices today: The CEOs and managers simply do not understand how to face the future. The options available to them are being clouded by a host of critical short-term problems which not only demand immediate action, but they obscure a view of any promise that might be in the future.

The news business is always reactionary; content depends on things that happen, every day, and we report it; our business models change as customer needs and demographics change.

At least, they’re supposed to.

But we’re in a period of massive upheaval now, and change has to come immediately — and be radical. In short, any change has to be big, it has to be fast, and it will by its very nature go against the grain of every tenet newspaper people believe. The industry cannot afford to act traditionally right now — instead it has to take some chances, make some gambles, and — GASP! — be innovative.

We have to create our own future as much as we can. News reporting, itself, is reactionary. But the business side cannot afford that philosophy any longer. The business side has to come to grips with a fast-moving, dynamic future . . . one that, frankly, is already here.

This means a lot of change and a lot of turmoil. It means that the business side is going to have to keep an eye on the basic problems every newspaper faces, as well as the ever-increasing competition; and if you don’t remember how I define all that, I’ll repeat it from a previous blog post:

The cost of newsprint is ever-increasing. General readership is dwindling. Its remaining readers and subscribers, generally over 40, are dying off day by day, and today’s youth — everybody under 40 — are turning elsewhere for news and information. The Times-Dispatch’s competition isn’t Style or the Richmond Free Press; it’s everything: television shows, radio, books, soccer practice, church, shopping, going to movies, dining out, surfing the Web, having sex, driving in rush hour, washing the dog, texting, Twittering, Facebooking, going to the National, vacationing, the Skins game…every damn thing is competition.

So: what to do?

A friend at the Times-Dispatch emailed me a few weeks ago and asked me what I think we had to do to save newspapers, and I’ll tell you what I told him.

We can’t save them all.

That’s it, bottom line. It’s a hard truth to face, but the shakeout that is inevitable is going to thin the herd substantially. Seriously. Many more than you think right now. Hardest hit, I believe, are going to be the metropolitan daily newspapers, of which the Richmond Times-Dispatch is a perfect example.

The reason why is simple. Fragmentation.

Over the years, with each new generation of technological advances in communication, the general audience — for everything — has gradually fragmented. Go to the magazine racks at Barnes & Noble or Borders. There are no copies of Life or Look (remember Look?). Offhand I can’t think of a single magazine that caters to a general audience other than Reader’s Digest. (And I would argue that RD is NOT general interest; no one reads it unless they’re fifty plus, right-wingers, and they keep stacks of them in the bathroom. They have a definite target audience, with about a five- to fifteen-minute reading threshold before they have to flush.)

General interest magazines are failing — and have been failing for years — because their audience is fragmenting. The audiences (plural, now) are turning to magazines and shows and websites that cater to their interests, including news outlets. This is one important and overlooked reason the readership of the Times-Dispatch and other metro-dailies is dropping off rapidly.

The product isn’t interesting to contemporary America.

That’s a harsh concept to face, but newspapers must come to grips with it, and now. Newspapers can no longer afford to be all things for all people, when most of the audience in their circulation areas actively choose NOT to read the product.

Instead, to survive, metro-daily newspapers are going to have to change beyond the scope of what any tradition could ever imagine:

1. Physical format

Downsize the newspaper to the tabloid format, like the Village Voice or the New York Daily News. I can’t guarantee that this will save money or not — the bean counters in the ivory towers will have to sort all this out — but talk around the RTD while I was there was that switching to tabloid would cut newsprint costs.

More importantly, the current broadsheet format of most newspapers is ubiquitous, and, therefore, not impressive to the populace. At all. It’s ignored. Dull. We’re talking about perception here. A tabloid format will probably be looked upon as innovative and interesting, new and different; not at all like the old-fashioned papers that only old people are buying, anyway.

2. Change the logo.

Seriously. Not kidding.

Fifty years ago, an old English masthead stood for something, giving the impression that the newspaper not only had substance, but it was impressive, it was dynamic; it was a rock upon which citizens could depend.

It represents exactly the opposite nowadays — that the product isn’t keeping up with the times or the new generations — and the old-fashioned logos most newspapers use have actually become liabilities. They do exactly what mastheads and logos are supposed to do — represent the newspaper in every way — but the public now perceives it in a completely opposite manner than intended.

If the public can’t be changed, then the product has to change.

3. Change the content radically.

Survey after survey tells the Marketing people that readers want more local news in the newspaper. The RTD has responded with publishing a big-headline local story, usually above the fold, every day.

It ‘s not enough.

This is going to be the biggest change the metro-dailies will have to face. It is both a content change and a philosophical change, and it is going to be both hated and highly controversial:

Metro dailies must change their content to focus 80% on local news.

And this is why: National news is regarded as free online and on television, and it is clear that readers prefer getting national and world news from those sources.

Okay then. Let them have it.

The core newspapers readers want more local news. They want it in a physical format that they can cut out and frame when their friends and family are featured.

Give it to them.

And this is what’s going to happen: people seeking national news will reject the newspaper, because they can get all the news they want online. The people wanting local news will probably be very happy. The audience may actually grow as communities are featured more and more; and instead of focusing on general interest, bigger-picture stories — which the public doesn’t want — reporters will examine the ins and outs of daily life in our tight communities.

Bottom line: journalism is a business that has to pull in revenue. Newspapers can no longer afford to give the public what they think the public needs. They have to give them what they want.

This is not a metro-daily that I particularly want to read, and I know it’s not one that most reporters want to work for. But remember the core demographics of the newspaper today: over 40, white collar, college educated, household income generally more than $75,000 annually. These people are already reading the paper, and they’re asking for more local content — why not give it to them and see if circulation increases with stories about little Bobby’s softball game, and how the local church group made quilts and raised $10,000 for malnourished African babies?

Three points newspapers have to face:

We are talking about publishing to a niche audience, not a general audience.

General interest publications are no longer viable in the marketplace.

Newspapers must adapt or die.

4. After defining your core niche, create new publications that focus on your region’s other niche audiences.

You should have heard the howls of indignation and outrage in the RTD offices when Boomer Life appeared on the stands. It was right after the RTD publisher, Tom Silvestri, brought in the high-priced guru behind the Boomer Initiative, which quite correctly identified the core Times-Dispatch audience as members of the Baby Boomer generation. The RTD was gearing up to focus on this primary audience when issue #1 of Boomer Life was suddenly available in racks at Ukrop’s and Food Lion, for free.

Imagine the journalistic body slam that shook the building.

That core audience — niche, if you will — is the RTD’s bread and butter, baby. Turning the focus toward that audience, instead of a 100% general audience, would have been a smart step. But Boomer Life was a banana peel under the RTD’s foot just about a year ago; and then this recession hit the newspaper industry like a tornado in a trailer park. Focus suddenly switched to survival.

There is a lesson, though. They were on target. Boomer Life took a little wind out of their sails, but the RTD was right to target that audience.

Now other niche audiences must be defined, and new publications must be created to cater to them. These magazines — not newsprint products, but magazines, whether free or for sale — ideally will replace and surpass the revenue lost by the paper’s changeover to a Locals’-interest
newspaper. Consider: a daily paper, a month mag for women, a monthly mag for boomers (why not?), a monthly for parents and families, a bi-weekly for central VA tourism and museums, a home and garden bimonthly . . . and accompanying websites, with both local AND national advertising, PLUS web content updated at least weekly . . .

This is a new world we’re talking about, and the Jurassic managers must evolve or . . . I think you get it.

(Why magazines, you ask? Because newspapers are considered common. Low. Magazines on glossy paper are upscale. Contemporary. Exciting. It’s all about perception, isn’t it?)

5. Sex it up.

I don’t mean to add sex and sex stories to the paper or any new magazines (however, given the number of adult shops in metro Richmond, there might be an argument for an adults-only monthly mag . . .). What I mean is: Newspaper content has to be “sexy,” as in, it has to be entertaining and has to make the public WANT to read it. The old argument that “Our news is best” or that the public needs our news just doesn’t hold up today. They have to WANT to read the paper if the RTD expects people to pay for it. Stop telling news stories in the old-fashioned, boring, highly structured ways. Be creative with the use of language. Meet your readers at their own level — not of intelligence or a reading level, but on a level of excitement, of fun, of experiencing what the world has to offer. Give articles an edge, damn it! Stop writing for pedestrians. Write for people who want to live! Give them what they want.

6. Consider a free, 100% advertising-supported model for the new Richmond Times-Dispatch.

I know it goes against everything newspaper people have stood for since time immemorial.

Get the hell over it. Do P & Ls out the ass. Swallow your pride and start thinking about surviving. Circulation will increase. The higher the circ, the higher the ad rates. That should mean more revenue, if you do it right. If.


6. Parent companies must diversify in news, non-news and non-publications areas.

NEWS: I’m thinking specifically, exploit the web. Create websites with news and articles for NATIONAL niche audiences. Stop thinking in local terms when you think about the Internet. LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE. News, showbiz news, sports news, financial news, weird news, tech news, shopping news, food news . . . each topic could have a daily-updated website, like Slate or Salon, and the pioneering news company that created this pantheon of sites (hint, hint, Media General) would be extremely well-positioned when the bottom finally drops out of the print news business within the next ten years.

And it will.

NON-NEWS: Websites with features and information, rather than just news. Game sites; opinion sites; cartoon sites. Even — now, think about the damn revenue alone, okay? — porn sites. (Time-Warner-AOL offers it in America’s hotel rooms. Should MG or any other intermeganationalcongloporation be different? Holier than thou?)

NON-PUBLICATIONS: Newspaper corporations traditionally offer news and information. What’s missing from that formula? Entertainment. Create Web content and television and YouTube and iPhone and iTunes content that is fun. Build a commercial audience. Think beyond news and think about what people want.

7. Look at basic cable.

This is my last point (thank you, I can hear the grateful sighs of relief from here). When the bottom drops out, and it will, only a handful of big newspaper companies will have the resources to create a national presence of any kind. The New York Times Co., yes. AP, yes — but they won’t. They are traditionalists who follow the rules instead of making them. Media General? Why, yes. What I’m suggesting is consider that “news” — quality news — cannot die with the slow death of newspapers.

What could, oh, say, a Media General do?

Online outlets — and outlets in whatever the next big thing will be — will need resources for news. When the news corps die, only a few will be left standing, and I predict they will all vie for dominance, offering their services to online outlets in much the same way as basic cable works today. Comcast will choose Media General; Time Warner will run with the AP; the Internet providers will pay for the news services, and then pass the costs on to the consumer. It will be only pennies, in the long run, to each consumer, so it’s just a raise in “basic cable,” if you will, and there will be little outcry. But it’s serious revenue for the news corps that make it that far. And Richmond’s own Media General is ideally situated, with all their sources of news. If they were to start thinking now, placing reporters and mini-bureaus in each state, even internationally, creating a digital infrastructure that would be able to report and publish on all their various and newly-created websites . . .

But this is all conjecture, though, isn’t it? Not a damn thing is going to happen until the bowtie-wearing dinosaurs in the newspapers across the country finally pull their fat asses off the toilet, throw the paper on the bathroom floor, look around and say, “Something’s got to be done.”

But will something be done? Let me close with this story. About five years ago, I was asked to be on a task force at the RTD. We had a list of questions to answer — each task force would pick one. As I remember it, we ended up with the question no one wanted . . . and I jumped at it. I will paraphrase, for my exact memory is fifty years worth of faulty: What can we as a newspaper do to increase circulation and advertising revenue . . . without changing anything that we are currently doing?

I laughed, and then we got to work. And our conclusions were much what you’d expect. If you’re doing almost everything wrong, you can’t expect to succeed without change.

Once the report was turned in, I asked one of the directors at the RTD, a friend, what was happening with it. I did this once a week, I think. Over a month later, she finally admitted to me, “You may as well stop asking. They didn’t like it. It’s quashed.”

So . . .

Will something be done?


Thanks for bearing with me so far. Now, please let me ask you a favor. No, I’m not asking for donations through PayPal. I’ll never do that. I blog for myself and I do not beg. BUT . . . If you enjoyed the posts about newspapers (and believe me, I’ll continue them), if you were entertained or intrigued at all; if you think I have any skill as a writer (or even as a chimp who can type), I ask that if you have a line on any jobs in media, marketing, advertising or writing, please pass the information on to me. I’ve needed a job since before Christmas; but more importantly I also have a bunch of skilled and talented friends in the communications fields who need jobs, too. We were all fired or laid off from the Times-Dispatch — we did our jobs very well, and we all kick ass. Send me an email and I’ll send you some resumes, including mine.

Thanks everybody.

Newspapers: Suicide by Greed and Stupidity

A friend at the Times-Dispatch sent me a link to a blog I’ve never seen before, which I hereby point you to. This post refers to the Time article by Walter Isaacson in which he argues that “micropayments,” that is, small payments for reading individual articles on newspaper websites, will not only work with us users, but will save newspapers.

If you listen closely, you can feel the final, futile vibrations of a dinosaur’s tail as it thrashes helplessly upon the unforgiving earth.

I refuted Isaacson’s essay in this post on Feb. 6. The Print CEO blog has an excerpt from the Daily Show, where Isaacson spoke with Jon Stewart; and the blog doesn’t refute Time‘s piece, but suggests instead that

Jon Stewart’s idea to use chemically addictive ink might have some merit too. At least to save the printed newspaper.

This explanatory essay, linked from the Print CEO blog, does a much better job at explaining why micropayments will never work.

The dinosaurs just don’t understand. And they won’t until the ugly truth is shoved down their throats.