::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Essay: The Long, Painful Suicide of Newspapers

Newspapers have responded poorly to the challenges of the Internet Age and 24-hour cable news stations. In fact, they remain in deep denial about the problem. Take this quote from a recent article in the Washington Post about industry problems.

“`Of all the things that have happened, [the change in telemarketing rules] had the single largest impact,’ said John Kimball, chief marketing officer for the Newspaper Association of America, an industry trade group.”

Kimball, the deluded sod, is blaming the federal “Do-Not-Call” legislation for circulation loss because, he argues, newspapers have lost the ability to cold call people with circulation offers.

That’s not the problem. The problem is that newspapers have been killing themselves for more than two decades.

I miss my daily newspaper. Oh, the Boston Globe is tossed onto my doorsteps every morning – as it has been for more than 20 years. But it’s an empty shell compared to 10 and 20 years ago.

Most of the effort at the Globe these days seems to go into “Sidekick,” a new tabloid section targeted at young people. Sidekick is “irreverent,” “edgy,” and “hip.” Every day Sidekick seems to feature another photograph of an actress in a low-cut top or a boy band trying to look tough.

Sidekick’s graphic-heavy pages are crowded with Hollywood insider briefs, movie and TV snippets, reader commentary on topics like dating and fashion, music and DVD reviews, and excerpts from the blogs of Globe reporters and editors.

In other words, all the things the Web delivers better, easier, and faster. Yet the Globe continues to entice young Internet users back to the newspaper -- alienating their base of readers clamoring for news.

It might seem like I’m picking on the Globe, but unfortunately, every daily newspapers is facing the same challenges – and responding in the same futile manner. Because despite efforts like Sidekick, circulation for newspapers continues to plummet (newspaper circulation has decreased each year since 1984) and ad sales have been dropping like George W. Bush’s approval ratings.

Yet rather than fall back on their core competencies – reporting, analyzing, and breaking news – newspapers have responded by trying to duplicate TV and the Web. This has meant shorter stories, more photographs and charts, and pandering in young audiences with celebrity gossip and “arts” reporting. In other words, they respond with Sidekick sections.

The biggest problem with newspaper executives is that they think the product is the newspaper. It isn’t. The product is content. The “newspaper” is simply a delivery channel. One of many ways now available to bring content to consumers – such as the Web, RSS, blogs, podcasts, email, and video.

Yet despite having the most vibrant, up-to-date content – newspapers have watched content aggregators like Google and Yahoo make mincemeat out of them. In a time when content is king, newspapers have failed to capitalize on it.

Here are three solutions:

  • Readers rely on newspapers for news – the in-depth reporting and analysis still in its infancy at online news outlets. Newspapers need to reinvest in a reporting and editing to support quality content creation. Unfortunately, most newspapers have responded to circulation challenges by slashing news staff. That’s short-sighted and suicidal behavior. Readers buy newspapers for more local news, in-depth coverage of national and international issues, sports, and feature stories. Give it to them.
  • Come to terms with the fact that a newspaper is simply a vehicle. Consumers want the content – not the broad sheet. So provide the content in any way that the readers might want it – give analysis on blogs, break news online, use podcasts and dynamic video (news photographers are already on the scene – arm them with video!), push content via RSS to desktops. Newspapers need to invest in these new technologies. They should turn the "newspaper" into pure news -- local, international, editorial, etc... because that's what readers of their hard-copy editions want.
  • Stop with the post mortems (like the headline on this essay). Newspapers as a channel might be heading the way of the dinosaurs, but who cares? It’s not about the channel – it’s about the content. Newspapers need to fill in the moats that have dug around themselves and open up. Invite interaction with readers – provide forums, bulletin boards, and blogs for readers. Engage -- become a vibrant source once again.

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