Newspapers Must Evolve or Die

As a California-based media hound, I read Olga Kharif's article, "The Online Experiments That Could Help Newspapers," with great interest as it concerned a new business model for newspapers being tested by The Bakersfield Californian.

As I commented on her story, daily newspapers need to transition to weeklies or biweeklies. If newspaper companies put all of their in-depth stories into concentrated newspapers, people will be far more willing to buy them at higher prices than the currently watered-down Sunday editions and the six puny editions that run throughout the week. If newspapers are publishing stories that were already covered by cable and broadcast news or the Internet, they might as well use news aggregation services on their Web sites for things that do not require original reporting.

Further, newspapers need to dedicate their Web sites to serving free ads, with the exception of competitively priced job listings and real estate ads. This is the only way to fight Craigslist and other sites that are sapping classified ad revenue from papers. My third suggestion: If the papers haven't already done so, they need to transition to print-on-demand, with distributed print houses throughout their coverage areas, as well as allowing POD throughout the world so people can get the Los Angeles Times, for example, for a low price. This could entail cooperation with bookstores or coffee shops (or both) that already have their own distribution chains.

Some background for my views: Concurrent with the rapid decline of the economy, we have seen the precipitous failure of newspapers around the nation, with The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe seemingly next on the extinction list. Let's dispense with the niceties regarding the role they play in our Constitution insofar as the First Amendment is concerned, or the history of print dating back to the 1400s and the Gutenberg press. What concerns me is that delivery of news has remained relatively static in spite of massive technological transformation under way.

The decline of the newspaper can be traced to four relatively modern events:

Free Web browsers: The beginning of the end was the release of Microsoft's free Web browser, Internet Explorer, in 1995. To the chagrin of Netscape, IE became the dominant browser, and with its ubiquity the floodgates of information were opened. People rushed to get their content online. Many tried to control the flow of information by monetizing it, but many more media brands were willing to give away information for free to gain a foothold in the nascent Internet.

Craigslist: Craig Newmark's game-changing Web site was the second event that greatly contributed to the decline of the newspaper industry through an attack on its traditional revenue model. Spreading from San Francisco since 1995, Craigslist has given people the ability to post classified ads for free, with some recent exceptions. Newspapers could not compete with this ad paradigm shift.

RSS: As early as 2000 but catching fire around 2005, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds provided a free and easy way for the aggregation of news, stories, blog posts, and all types of information that Internet users felt was pertinent to their lives. With RSS, not only is information free, it's also quick and easy to grab the latest news from the Internet without having to visit your newspaper's Web site.

Google Ads: Google's ability to place ads everywhere online meant it could monetize the Internet by a seemingly transparent method; using AdWords meant that even small blogs could provide a source of income to Google. While the Google search engine became popular because of the accuracy and relevance of its search results, AdWords was the linchpin that would effectively create a dependable source of income for Google, marking the beginning of the end of mainstream newspapers.

To make this quartet of events worse, the deepening global recession has hastened the final coda of many newspapers. Although they have tried to respond, newspapers seem unable to articulate and execute a real strategy beyond cutting costs and services while raising prices for advertisements and subscriptions. This response is merely a Wall Street-driven reaction in full ignorance of the agents of change driving papers' demise if they don't evolve. I believe this is the wrong approach that will simply lead to the eventual collapse of newspapers.

That's why newspapers must publish on a biweekly or weekly publishing schedule in order to survive. It seems counterintuitive, in light of the immediacy of the Web, to publish with less frequency. In fact, some newspapers have already begun this transition. Consumers no longer think of daily news; news is served to us by the nano-second on the Web and on our smartphones and handheld devices.

Highlight the Best Stuff

Smart publishers will push what was daily news reporting online, then collect and publish their best digital reporting into a weekly collection of articles combining the most read, most discussed, most e-mailed, most blogged, or simply most thought-provoking stories in print. At the end of each of these stories, editor-selected opinions should be added to bring a balance of views.

In addition, the use of full- or half-page color images should be scaled up dramatically to draw people into buying printed newspapers. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; eye candy is a simple device to further differentiate between the online and print editions.

Newspaper Web sites will need to change as well. To start, they should collaborate with smaller papers to cover local news while aggregating broader news from national and international sources. At the end of each collection of articles from national or international sources, smaller local papers should attach a local perspective. Blogging by newspaper journalists creates a community, which breeds loyalty and readership if reporters and editors interact with readers and commenters and blog in order to spark and sustain a conversation.

As for the advertising model, it's not news that newspaper revenues are plunging. So why wait: Change! The online advertising model may improve if newspapers eliminate the middle man—the DoubleClicks and similar services—of the Internet. Instead, newspapers should repackage their print ad sales to include online ads. And believe it or not, those transient online ads do not encourage retention of their information; they are Attention Deficit Disorders, rewiring our brains to stop paying attention the moment we navigate to another page and back.

Classified Ads and E-Ink

Classified ads need radical reform to bring them back to newspapers. First, newspapers must create a unified, national classified database to rival Craigslist, allowing readers and Web surfers from across the country to access listings for jobs, apartments, and collectibles. Second, papers need to stop charging to post ads for anything except real estate and jobs. Third, those real estate and job ads should reduce their minimum price to $10 an ad, with a nominal click-based fee on top of that. These ads would be the only ones printed and posted online, while the free ads would be available only online. Finally, these free classified posts would contain paid, third-party advertisements of simple text-based click-through ads that are geographically tied to the classified posts.

Finally, if they haven't already done so, newspapers need to get on the E-Ink bandwagon to spread their reach beyond the physical borders of their print subscriptions. The future is in color E-Books, but as the Kindle is showing, black-and-white E-Ink is successful right now. Not only can this technology save print costs, but it offers a potential way to deliver news to rural areas as wireless technologies improve.

The drastic steps we're now seeing, from closing newspapers to death by a thousand cuts (in salaries, jobs, and newspaper sections) is a short-sighted, panicked response to the economic crisis. These steps by newspaper owners do not address the broader issues of why this once-esteemed medium has been in decline for at least the past decade. The current economic malaise presents an opportunity, however tough, to force newspapers to face broader issues and change with the times.

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