Monday, March 16, 2009

Newspaper Publishers Are Idiots

For too long newspapers have taken on the role of cultural arbiter and distribution channel for popular culture ideas. That is all over and can never return.

SO now we hear that The New York Times is contemplating the notion of becoming a subscription-based Web site, where you only get to read it if you pay real money. What a quaint idea.
Let me put it bluntly: This won't work. It will completely sink the publication faster than it's already sinking.
The problem with the subscription model for today's big newspapers is the fact that there is very little exclusive information of any real value. The New York Times syndicates much of its content to other papers, so there are alternative sources—not subscription-based—with the same information. Why buy a cow when milk is free?
Starting back in the early seventies, most of the big newspapers around the country were lulled into a sense of security and easy money by eschewing in-house reporting in exchange for syndicated news from the likes of the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Reuters.
Over time syndicated stories began to dominate the newspapers in major cities all over the country. This got so bad that you'd find a local story, for example, in a San Francisco paper covered by The New York Times. It was just cheaper to do that, so they did.
This began to undermine the local papers; readers kept seeing all these New York Times stories and soon traded their local paper subscription for their regional edition of the Times. This marked a decline of interest in the local products. Then came the Internet.
The Internet added comparison shopping to the mix. Want a story about the baby stuck down in the well? How about 3,000 stories about the baby in the well?
Pretty soon the public began to notice that 2,975 of those 3,000 stories about the baby in the well were the exact same story, with the other 25 being rewrites of the exact same story. Then came the revelation. "Hey, these newspapers are all doing the exact same thing! Why do we need so many of them?"
In hindsight, USA Today had the right idea. National newspapers do seem like the best idea, but that trend and the Internet cannot seem to line up correctly, and the Internet is becoming the national paper.
Like most writers who have worked at newspapers, I have mixed feelings regarding their future as instruments of communication for something vaguely referred to as "news." I'd advise people to take a good look at newspapers before 1850 and compare them with what we have today.
Early newspapers consisted of local stories, summaries of events, and listings of items such as ship departures and other notices. There were no recipes, feature stories about dogs, or full-page advertisements for movies.
Then somewhere along the way, newspapers became more entertaining than informative. The writing was often flowery and dramatic. Columns written by personalities joked around about the events of the day. There were cartoons and horoscopes. If I wanted to know what ships were coming in and out of port carrying a shipment of Honda cars, where would I find it? Some papers carry notices like this in the financial pages, but most do not.
And, as an aside, what is dumber than the stock quote listings in the newspaper? You can type a ticker symbol into Google and get a real-time quote with all sorts of other information. How do you compete with that? Individual sites and technologies simply do certain things better than old-fashioned newspapers can.
So should the newspaper go the way of the buggy whip? No, it just needs to return to its roots, and focus on providing densely edited and directed information of importance as decided by a trustworthy source. And it should leave the fluff to the Internet.
For too long newspapers have taken on the role of cultural arbiter and distribution channel for popular culture ideas. That is all over and can never return.
That said, nobody has nailed the new model for the old newspaper. These publishers are out-and-out idiots. They see something online and immediately try to do the same thing in print. "We want color ink and more stories about celebrities!"
I was doing research at the University of California Newspaper Library, which has a tremendous collection of microfilmed old newspapers from every era. If you want to see the heyday of the newspaper business and quickly see what would work today, look at a 1954 edition of The San Francisco Examiner. It's so dense with news stories that today's papers look as if there's nothing in them. It is extremely compelling.
The point is that there are good ideas already out there, and they just need to be rediscovered. But for now the panic-stricken bosses seem to be heading down the same abyss in the same direction. It's the direction that created the abyss in the first place.


No comments: