Another printed newspaper went away today and with typical media self-absorption, the paper reported their own obituary with an in-depth report complete with a full page front page farewell. This death comes on the tails of last week’s Pew Research report that apparently shows that the public is not concerned with the demise of newspapers.
First off, I think the reports of the death of newspapers are widely overstated — because they’ve been over reported by the subjects themselves. The Narcissus Media demands that other news orgs report on other news orgs. So the Seattle and Denver news deaths were front page news from the NY Times down to the Podunk Weekly Times (circulation 51). The editors of other papers were interested in the deaths of these papers so they thought you would be too.
Plus some of these papers (which are actually for-profit businesses!) needed to die just like some banks need to die right now. Over-consolidation and over-monopolization of newspapers have caused unrealistic expectations from shareholders of these bloated behemoths corporations. (Radio, you’re next!) The reality is that with more available media outlets some markets can no longer support more than one major daily newspaper. (but what about the San Francisco Chronicle, you cry? Prediction: If the Chronicle does go under, there will be a new nimbler newspaper pop up in its place within a month.)
Despite the naysayers — there will always be a market for news and information. Sure, now is a rough economic time for any industry that depends on ad dollars — but a sensibly run media organization that’s looking to the future will be OK in the long run. That doesn’t mean that information will always be printed on sheets of dead trees and thrown on your doorstep. That model is going / will eventually go the way of the dodo. I think the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is a good coal mine canary to see if a traditional newspaper can transition to a new distribution model.
Every pundit, guru, and almost everyone in media has put their two cents in about the journalism “crisis” and have come up with a plethora of ideas from micropayments to new distribution models to crowdsourcing. Some have merit and some are “just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” (a favorite phrase of the pundits). From my seat in the nosebleed section, I see that newspapers (and all traditional news media) have two main problems that need to be solved before the ship sinks:
Problem 1) — a house divided against itself cannot stand
I rail and rant against organizations that have no marketing/business strategy. And while having no strategy is a bad problem, there’s something that’s even worse — and that’s having two strategies. News organizations are particularly prone to this problem because of the supposed “editorial wall” (there’s a great post here about this problem). Walk into any traditional media outlet and ask 5 people what’s the organization’s plan for dealing with the new realities of communication, and you’ll get 5 answers that will be biased by the side of the wall they’re on.
REALITY: People read the newspaper for news. Go try to sell advertising in a paper that has no news content and see how far you go.
REALITY: Reporters want a paycheck. That Mac needs electricity to run. Advertising supports the economics of journalism.
SOLUTION: Every news organization needs to kill their separate internal tribes, come up with one war strategy that everyone agrees on, and fight the white man before he takes your land.
Problem 2) — the Brand has been forgotten
There’s a disconnect in perceptions when it comes to news coverage. While the news orgs are saying “You’ll miss us when we’re gone!“, the public is saying “uhhh, no we won’t“. It doesn’t matter who is right. But guess which group’s perception matters to the bottom line and staying in business?
Brand is perception. Perception is reality. What changed the public’s perception of the news brand into something they think they can live without?
Alot of people blame the emergence of online media for journalism’s current troubles. And while it’s a major factor, online is not what is killing newspapers. Newspapers saw the Internet coming way before you had your first AOL account. The trouble was that their first line of defense didn’t work in Web 1.0. When Web2.0 rolled around, they saw they missed the opportunity so now they’re trying to out amateur the amateurs — which is killing the brand image they’ve been cultivating for 50, 75, or 100 years. It’s not hard to find ameutuer-ish crap on the Internet, but it is hard to find sources of information that you’ve trusted for years.
The news media have not done a good job selling their USP. Instead of focusing on the one thing that they could do better than anyone else (local news), they wrapped 2% of news into 98% of other stuff that could easily be replicated by competitors and sold it as such.
The sale to the news consumer is not “you can’t get this type of information anywhere else”. It devolved into “buy a subscription and get a CD and an umbrella“. News media have forgotten what they’re really selling so the consumer has forgotten as well. The public thinks they won’t miss the newspaper because the newspaper has cultivated a brand that they are the place to get the items that the public can now get other places in better ways. But there is no better way to get local news.
Problem 2 is the bigger problem and the one that will take the longest to fix. But the fix needs to start today.
Plus there’s a third problem of trying to fit old mass media models into new media which I addressed last fall.