Ten experts share their ideas for reinventing the print newspaper
Try to count the number of times a death knell has sounded for the print newspaper, and you’ll quickly run out of fingers. Despite continued rumors of its impending demise, print still accounts for the overwhelming majority of revenue at most newspaper companies. It also plays an important role for readers.
The print newspaper’s job is to “accurately reflect what is going on in the community, meet readers’ needs for news and information and act as a watchdog on government,” says Kenneth A. Paulson, president and chief operating officer of the Newseum (www.newseum.org) and a former editor of USA Today and USAToday.com.
Still, as digital offerings grow and readers’ habits change, many publishers are looking at how to reinvent the core newspaper, whether by cutting sections or days of distribution or more closely tying their print and online products together. In this time of transition, PRESSTIME asked 10 experts—inside and outside the industry—to write a mission statement for today’s core print product, tell us what elements of the current paper they would include if they were starting a print product from scratch and gaze into their crystal balls to predict what that product will look like in two, five and 10 years.
We found areas of agreement and divergent opinions. Think of this as a stimulating dinner party conversation about the future of print, and pull up a chair at our table.
* Ken Doctor, blogger, Content Bridges; affiliate analyst, Outsell Inc., an information market analytics firm; and former vice president of content services at Knight Ridder Digital
* Mario R. Garcia, chief executive officer and founder, Garcia Media, a newspaper design firm
* Juan Antonio Giner, partner, INNOVATION, an international media consulting group in Pamplona, Spain, and blogger, What’s Next: Innovations in Newspapers
* Charlotte H. Hall, senior vice president and editor, Orlando Sentinel, and president, American Society of Newspaper Editors
* Alan Jacobson, president and chief executive officer, Brass Tacks Design, a newspaper design firm
* Ted Leonsis, founder, chairman and majority owner, Lincoln Holdings LLC, which owns the Washington Capitals and Washington Mystics, and vice chairman emeritus, AOL LLC
* Tim J. McGuire, Frank Russell Chair, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University in Phoenix, and former editor and senior vice president, Star Tribune in Minneapolis
* Alan D. Mutter, blogger, Reflections of a Newsosaur (http://newsosaur.blogspot.com) and managing partner, Tapit Partners, an information technology consulting firm
* Kenneth A. Paulson, president and chief operating officer, Newseum, and former editor, USA Today and USAToday.com
* Howard Weaver, blogger, Etaoin Shrdlu and former vice president of news for The McClatchy Co. in Sacramento
Q: What is the mission of today’s core newspaper?
Garcia: The core newspaper is: 1) provider of news summaries for readers who may not be reading online; 2) provider of analysis and interpretation for those readers who are what I call “printnets”—those who read both online and in print; [and] 3) source of advertising supplements and other items that readers still seek and need.
Doctor: Our daily print newspaper must remain, first of all, daily. Publishers should not be the ones to break the daily print reading habit for the tens of millions of Americans who still look forward to their morning hit. Second, the core paper must please its core audience—which is becoming more niche-like, baby boomer-plus in age—and likewise retain as much of the print advertising that will sustain companies’ transition to hybrid print/digital companies.
Mutter: Even though the newspaper generates 90 percent of a typical publisher’s sales, it is a mistake to think of it as the “core product.” The true core products of a newspaper company are its abilities to produce compelling content, build large audiences, sell advertising and make a profit. The publishers who succeed in the future will be agnostic about the platforms they use to capitalize on those core strengths.
McGuire: Print products cannot get caught up in “commodity” information. Everything a print source does must “add value.” Even weather and sports must be presented in ways that distinguish the information from commodity sources.
Leonsis: The core mission is to reinvent [the newspaper] to be a more integrated community information programmer. Newspapers now need to focus one-third on presentation of national news and activation of discussion around a topic, one-third on hyperlocal news and get community comment and a Wiki-like environment created around each local bit of information, and then one-third on creating a third-party network to sell advertisers within its environment as well as related affiliated print and online environments.
You’re starting a newspaper print product from scratch. What stays, and what goes (sections, beats, days published, classified ads)? How do you rethink the parts you keep?
Mutter: The traditional, one-size-fits-all newspaper should be a concise, reasonably comprehensive and extremely well-organized guide to the community. It should leverage the strengths of print: deep reporting, thoughtful analysis, fine writing and elegant visuals. It should avoid the weaknesses of print by de-emphasizing warmed-over coverage of stale, widely reported news.
Paulson: Most newspapers have an extraordinarily loyal core audience that has been doing the crossword puzzles, reading the obits and scanning the stock tables for years. These are generally older readers who will need and read our content for decades. The challenge is to weigh whatever changes you may have in mind against the expectations of this core readership. Yes, you can drop TV listings and replace them with new content to try to attract younger readers, but at what price? Will the gain offset the loss?
Garcia: If I am starting a newspaper from scratch, I may consider doing a robust Sunday edition, then creating the ultimate online newspaper for daily. I may even consider a very short, one-section, printed daily edition, but acting more like a companion to the online than a self-standing newspaper. I would print it in an A4 compact format, and I would make a sort of navigational tool to [information] that readers must know that day.
Hall: Readers want perceptive and analytical coverage of national and international news, plus advertisers love it, so the A-section stays. Local news, commentary and interactivity with readers are our franchise, so the news reports, the columnists, the editorial page, the letters to the editor and other interactive commentary are our core. Sports [remains and] focuses on opinion, enterprise and analysis.
In features, the comics, puzzles and advice stays, and all the fun stuff to do and see (movie reviews, local day trips, concerts, etc.). But some lifestyle content goes away unless there is advertising to support it (food or travel, for example). Excellent photography and graphics stay. They engage the reader emotionally and intellectually.
Traditional storytelling morphs into a combination of alternative story forms for short, explanatory information and narrative storytelling for compelling human stories, and the 25-inch story on incremental government action disappears.
A number of newspapers are eliminating sections or days of distribution. Do these efforts strengthen the core product in the long run?
Mutter: Publishers should make every effort to sustain the continuity of their publication cycles, because disruptions will anger and disorient loyal readers and send a not-so-subliminal message to advertisers that it really isn’t important to be in the newspaper on a regular basis. To the degree a publisher is in extremis because there is insufficient readership or advertising to support a traditional, one-size-fits-all newspaper on certain days of the week, she should begin to develop niche publications such as sports on Monday; family and kids on Tuesday; food, dining, health and fitness on Wednesday; weekend planners on Thursday; and guy stuff like cars, sports and electronics on Friday.
Niche days will give newspapers an opportunity to revitalize the relevance of print while attracting the attention of new, unexploited audiences and fresh advertising dollars.
McGuire: Printing some days may be a viable answer, but it’s happening for all the wrong reasons. More newspapers ought to be asking where are the holes in my media market, and how can I fill them? And they should be asking if we make certain moves in this market like publishing three times a week, what are the counter moves I can expect? I am going to be stunned if a competitor does not put a Sunday-Monday sports product into Detroit. The Detroit papers should do that before a competitor does.
Weaver: Traditional sectioning is perhaps the easiest and most obvious thing to change. Some papers that have done so have faced less audience reaction than many anticipated. Skipping days seems to me a more draconian and less viable approach.
Doctor: I call it “dayscrapping,” and it needs to be done judiciously. I’ve talked to publishers who are going to cut Monday and Tuesday classified sections and believe they can just extend 11-day buys out farther. That makes good sense. Dropping days altogether saves significant costs in the short run but accelerates the transition to digital—and we know there’s far less money in digital publishing at this point.
Let’s not, above all, fool ourselves. Cutting back the core product doesn’t strengthen it. It may be a necessary evil, but pitching a less-is-more approach to readers won’t fool them. Rethinking and reorganizing the core product (and coming clean with readers about the impetus for the changes) is the way to go.
Who is the audience for the core newspaper in terms of readers and advertisers? Who should it be aimed at?
Mutter: Editors and publishers need to adopt a zero-based, market-driven approach to what they do. They need to learn to ask their readers and nonreaders what they want—and then respond creatively to the answers. Ideally, a paper in Kansas City should not look, act and feel like a paper in Orange County, Calif., or Orange County, Fla. Yet, apart from the datelines on the local stories, they mostly do. That’s because newspaper people are more comfortable copying each other than taking the risk of trying something new.
Weaver: As grandma always said, “You dance with them that brung you.” Serving the existing audience is a primary concern. That difficult transition—letting go with one hand while grasping the new with the other—remains a huge challenge.
Doctor: The average print newspaper reader is about [age] 57. It’s a great audience, with above-average income, wealth and education. It’s just not the mass audience of yesteryear. Newspapers have to match their real audiences with advertisers who really want to reach those audiences and price accordingly.
Giner: Print newspapers cannot be “newspapers for everybody with everything” because they will end up as newspapers for nobody. Focus on la crème de la crème of your specific market.
In the past, reinventing the core product might have been seen as just redesigning the look of the paper. Is that still part of it? What else needs to be done?
Jacobson: For 20 years, I’ve been saying that cosmetic redesigns are a waste of time and money. Here’s what needs to be done: Change the editing to include content that is compelling, relevant, interesting and useful to readers—and eliminate everything else.
McGuire: Print publishers need to totally rethink what they are doing and [ask]:
* Do I want to deliver eyeballs to customers, or do I want to entice customers to pay for the product or a combination of the two? How do I support the news gathering I want to do?
* Is this a mass endeavor, or it is targeted? What are the information opportunities for that market?
* What is my role in the democratic process? If you want one, go for it. If you want to be all Britney [Spears], all the time, chuck the democracy façade.
* What are the market’s information needs and potentials?
* What is it that we can do for our market that nobody else can, and how valuable will that be to the market? If it is a commodity product, I can’t charge much. If it is truly special and distinguishable, the value of my product is greater.
* Invent a new product that is not tied to yesterday but is tied to serving your market or community. Create and add value that meets the market’s needs.
Leonsis: [Develop] a core competency in ad sales so that the organization can represent other local media companies to build scale and create mini advertising.com-like businesses in each market. Who would or should know more about local buying habits in a market or seasonality or traditions than a local paper? Who knows the advertising community better? Leveraging and making databases and metric-based marketing programs will be very important for the organization’s future.
In a Web-first, print-second world, what role does the core newspaper play? What is its relation to other products?
Jacobson: The core product is the delivery vehicle for free-standing advertising inserts and an opportunity to introduce print-centric readers to online offerings.
Hall: It stops the clock once a day and takes an assessment, offering the kind of in-depth and analytical work that the 24/7 breaking news world on the Web cannot provide. Print is good at the things the Web is not good at—watchdog, explanatory, enterprise, narrative storytelling. The two media complement one another. One is the flowing river, changing constantly; the other is the rock on the shore, fixed and solid.
Giner: Print and online are different, but they must be developed, produced, edited and presented from an integrated multimedia newsroom superdesk that plans, plans and plans. You will not succeed in these integrated newsrooms if you are not a very strong and creative planner.
Doctor: My sense is this. It’s a comfort product, one that tens of millions of Americans like, just as they like their trip to Starbucks. It’s a convenient product, browsable and portable, something the Web still isn’t. I love being able to read The New York Times on my iPhone but not for long stretches. It oozes community, if its journalism is authentic and good, much more than any wonderful news Web site. All these qualities should be emphasized in product creation and marketing.
How can the core newspaper be reinvented or redesigned for greater synergy with online efforts?
Mutter: If I had to pick one idea, it would be to put quality user-generated content from the Web site in the newspaper, just as important stories from print are posted to the Web.
Paulson: The best way is simply to have complementary content so that readers on either platform know where they can go for more information and an expanded experience.
Leonsis: One team, one set of combined metrics. Circulation to work on search optimization, creating news and information widgets and getting them distributed; one ad sales team to sell ads across CPM [cost per thousand], CPC [cost per click] and CPA [cost per action] and e-commerce upsells; one editorial team to really be 24/7 bloggers, with the best getting into the paper itself, from reporters and from readers, users.
What’s the biggest obstacle to reinvention, and how do you remove (or at least lessen) it?
Hall: Old-style thinking can frustrate redesign. The lack of vision is the other major obstacle. Editors need a vision of how to differentiate their product from the Web but also make it as exciting and new as digital media. Visuals get you part of the way there. A new approach to writing and storytelling can get you the rest of the way.
Weaver: If “core product” means printed newspaper, the obstacle is that this traditional product is both profitable and expensive to produce, anchoring newspaper companies to a revenue and cost structure that is increasingly difficult to sustain but impossible to let go of. The solution lies in the hard, painful work of restructuring expenses—layoffs, outsourcing and the rest—while invigorating new sources of revenue, chiefly online.
Doctor: Five decades of unprecedented success. That success has hardened our thinking about what content on pulp should look like and how it should be organized. Newer transit tabs point one direction in reinventing print products, in thinking what gets included, length of stories and presentation. The imperative: Start with blank newsprint and map it to a specific news consumer’s habits. The biggest issue is getting beyond a one-size-fits-all product, whether print or online. Unless you do that, you end up pretzelized in compromise.
What will the core newspaper look like in two, five and 10 years?
Garcia: In some communities, the core printed product will not be around in two, five or 10 years. In others, it will publish less often, as [only] Friday and Sunday, for example. The daily ones will be compact formats, some even the A4 format, already popular in many countries in Europe. They will be inspired by magazines and books, and less by traditional daily fare.
Doctor: It will be smaller, more expensive and fairly data-free. It may resemble the 32-page daily newsstand edition envisioned in Detroit.
Jacobson: In less than a year, there will be very few seven-day-a-week newspapers. In less than five years, newspapers will print for Sunday only. In less than 10 years, no newspapers will be printed.
Paulson: Newspapers will be smaller in size, more compact in presentation and more reliant on circulation revenue. The single-copy price will be significantly greater. As advertising in newsprint declines, readers will have to bear more of the cost of content. We’ll need to make it worth their while.
Hall: Change is rapid and continuous. It would be foolish to try to predict even two years out in our business. Liveliness, emotion and depth will be the key attributes in the next few years for print.