A thought on the death of Paper Part 1: Newspapers

Are newspapers dying? Despite all the bad press, no. (I will explain later)

Could they restructure to become more viable long term and increase profits? Yes.


1. Restructure printing production schedules and issue newspapers for three days a week (let’s say Wednesday-Friday-Sunday).

2. Charge to access content online.

Yup. That simple. (and I will get back to those two)

Newspapers just aren’t as bad off as people want to make them out to be.

First. Most papers are pretty healthy. The problem is they are owned by corporations demanding 30% profit margins. If they don’t, it is often more profitable to divest what is typically some valuable real estate and shut paper down. Smaller papers with ownership content with comfortable but not exorbitant profits are doing just fine. Maybe newspapers need to reevaluate profit goals.

Second. The source of revenue. I believe it was just last year NY Times circulation revenue topped advertising revenue for the first time in a very very long time. Once again. That is ok. Just a different revenue model. It’s been done once before (like when newspapers first came into existence and the first 100+ years of their existence).

Third. High ad revenue is a relatively recent phenomenon. For rounding sake let’s say for the first 125 years or so circulation revenue drove the newspaper industry (don’t worry. I am not gonna get stuck on printed paper. Just going through successful models that would apply to digital news also. Uh. Paid circulation). There is no reason why today’s newspapers cannot go back to the original “circulation revenue” model and live with less ad revenue.

Fourth. Government support. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…what do I mean by that? Tax breaks on production expenses and a favorable mail rate. Both those things lower expenses pretty significantly and then the news reporting infrastructure can go back to focusing on generating responsible news.

Ok. Here we go. So why I believe it’s easy. Because newspapers actually control professional news output. Simplistically they own the network of news gathering and fact finding and responsible reporting.

Unfortunately the simple solution (those two little things I listed upfront) carries with it a lot of complex maneuvering and actions.

The first is simply a choice they need to do or don’t do. But it would be silly to not do it. They would minimize print production expenses, maximize circulation days, probably be flat with existing ad revenues (when it is all said and done) and maintain readership.

The second simple thing to do is a little trickier.

The New York Times says it will begin charging readers for full access to its Web site starting in 2011.

The Times said Wednesday that it will use a metered system that will allow free access to a certain number of articles and then charge users for additional content.  The price was not disclosed.

Two earlier attempts to charge for online content were scrapped. One in 1996 charged for access to the Web site outright, while a program to charge for Times columnists was abandoned in 2007.

Yet. There is a simple way to overcome this tricky situation.

They just need to start charging online access. All of them at the same time. (uh. unfortunately that is something called “collusion”.)

Hey, I have empathy for newspapers because while the sticky wicket (predicament) they are in is partially their fault, it is also partially just a reflection of the current environment. But they can fix it. Pretty quickly in fact. Now. It will be painful and they would pretty much have to fall into the collusion game (which I tend to believe-even without a high falutin’ law degree-is illegal) but if they all made people pay for news the situation is solved.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…let’s be clear. This isn’t just about subscribers. If newspapers start charging online, news repurposers (who despite their astute entrepreneurial spirit, which I applaud, are simply no-value-providing-blood-sucking-leeches to the responsible news generating body) would either have to pay the news providers a fee or go out of business. This is all those random news story accumulators online. They pay or go away.

This then permits newspapers, or the News syndicates, who pay for great journalists to do what they are paid to do, to have the ability to decide however they want to profitably distribute that news (newspaper, papyrus tablet, internet, cell phone, etc).

Ok. So somebody is going to start chewing my butt on “newspapers owning responsible journalism.”

Journalists (professional) versus Civilian Journalists (the current buzzword for bloggers and such).

(prepare for a little rant)

Bloggers, while called civilian journalists, are not truly journalists. We (heck. I am a blogger) are typically repurposers of journalism. We take credible journalism and either improve upon it or pick it apart for our own purposes. Interestingly this is exactly what our founding fathers meant by freedom of speech (or the ability for each household to have their own newspaper press if that is what they wanted). But our founding fathers also saw the importance of credible journalism. Journalism based on facts and responsible reporting of news.

So the more I thought about the whole situation of newspapers and professional journalism and “civilian journalism” the more I got wound up about it.

Here’s the deal. I believe it is an insult to professional journalism for a blogger or amateur “journalist” to think their reporting is even in the same galaxy as a professional journalist.

Maybe it’s because I have worked in advertising and I get sick of “so some kid made up an ad good enough for the Super Bowl, i.e., “Why pay some big expensive agency?”. The debate ends here and now:

1. Even a blind pig can find a truffle every once in awhile.

2. As Hugh McLeod says “we are all given a box of crayons when we are young” we all can be creative. Uh. Once in awhile. Call it stumbling upon professionalism and it teases you into believing something you are not.

Professional journalists win Pulitzers and “civilian journalists” don’t.

I write because I want to share my thoughts. If I stumble across saying something insightful with correct grammar and some semblance of sentence structure that doesn’t ruin the thought, I party.

Professional journalists do good journalism consistently. And with responsibility to telling the truth. And articulating the truth just as it is. The truth.

Civilian journalists bury truth amidst opinion or without perspective. That is where I truly see the biggest difference.

But. Even the writing is different. Just pick up the East Moline “Mo News” newspaper versus the New York Times. Sentence structure. Clarity. Shit. Let’s just say you always understand a piece of writing in a New York Times versus your local paper.

Ok. Done with that. Let’s hope you agree professional journalism is just that.

Anyway. Saving the newspaper business. Why is it important?

  1. Ladies and gentlemen. In the good ole US of A speech is free. But. News is not.  Do not be fooled. If newspapers fail, most of what you see online goes away. Huh? (just guessing that is the sound you made if you haven’t fallen asleep)
  2. Papers (and some magazines) have created and pay for a credible responsible news reporting mechanism. If you believe YouTube is the source for news, be prepared to start living i
    n a much skewed perspective of the world. YouTube absolutely has the ability to show one person’s perspective on a snapshot in time, and permits the viewer to guess frame of reference. Responsible journalism reflects frame of reference and facts (despite what you may believe, the media is responsible to share news based on facts).
  3. Because newspapers are not simply newspapers. They are news gathering and reporting infrastructures which at this point get paid through the production of newspapers. The paper newspaper is simply the tip of a pretty large newsberg (sorry).

We need to remember newspapers are simply a delivery system for the infrastructure that uncovers and reports news. That delivery system funds the news reporting animal. If newspapers go away, the animal doesn’t get fed and it dies. Unless the animal can figure out a way to get fed another way (charge to access content online).

In a weird way, this is not really any different than a manufacturer insuring its goods get sold through approved distribution outlets and getting paid for it. Remember. Manufacturers went out of their way to destroy distributors who tried to circumvent the system (like illegal redistribution of products online or resellers in foreign countries).

Is it simple to control everything? Nope. I still bought my bootleg Ally Mcbeal DVD set from somewhere in China to the dismay I am sure of whoever owns the rights.

Is that a huge business? Heck. I don’t know.

Is it of the best quality? Nope.

So think about news the same way. As long as people fully understand that what they are getting (although I sometimes wonder whether people truly discern responsible, well-crafted journalism versus some yahoo writing what they think they saw. Similar to TV advertising being generated by some kids in a classroom. Sure. On occasion they will hit it right. The majority of the time? Nope. Oops. Sorry. I digress).

In the end? Drives me a little nuts to see how people talk about the death of papers. Who cares about “the paper?”

Newspapers are an information delivery system (albeit one I personally like on Fridays and Sundays) but that delivery system supports a HUGE reporting mechanism. A mechanism dedicated to the development of responsible, professional journalism and the gathering of worthy news “truth” and the optimal delivery of that information.

Anyway. That’s all I have for today on the Death of Newspapers.

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Written by Bruce