Monday, December 03, 2012

Print newspapers are dying... just follow the (ad) money

At North Country Public Radio's In Box blog, Brian Mann posted an interesting graphic which highlighted the flow of advertising dollars away from the traditional print media toward online sources. It provoked an interesting discussion, but it shows the decreasing relevance of newspapers. And that's unfortunate.

The problem with the newspapers is that the main product is fundamentally the same as it’s been for a long time even as the broader media landscape has transformed radically.

Sure, newspapers added bells and whistles like websites, video, Twitter and blogs. Journalists themselves are absolutely doing things a lot differently. But the core product, the print newspaper, is fundamentally unchanged. And that's why the industry is dying.

The typical local newspaper contains some local news. Lots of canned wire service news stories, often shortened into meaninglessness. Tons of syndicated features. Press releases. You’ll notice that all of the stuff, save the first, is identical to what you can get elsewhere for free.

Newspapers have adapted to the changing reality via the (often free) bells and whistles but they haven’t adapted the core product that they’re all asking people to pay money for.

They need to recognize that people are getting their national news elsewhere. They’re getting their infotainment elsewhere. They’re getting their sports scores and standings elsewhere. They're getting their movie listings and recipes elsewhere. The print newspaper can’t compete with other media in these areas. They need to focus like a laser beam on what makes them truly unique: LOCAL news and other local content.

Sure, they will say “Blah blah blah we do x local stories each day” devoid of context. One weekday print issue of the Post-Star, I counted every single story and tagged it as created by a staff member or not. About 40% of the stories were created by one of their journalists. I’m not picking on the Post-Star (they’re just the one I read every day). Most smaller newspapers are like this. Many have a much lower percentage of local content.

Newspapers are losing money because they aren’t offering enough original, unique content to  make people think, “I *can’t* not read the paper today because I will miss stories I can’t get anywhere else.” Most local papers don’t have nearly enough of those stories. They need to re-direct their resources. 

Slash syndicated features to the bare minimum (people freak out about puzzles and cartoons so keep those and the better op-ed columnists but get rid of the syndicated fluff stories). Get rid of all other wire service content. Take all that money and re-direct into more and more local content.

Sclerotic 'experts' may say it’s crazy. But when your industry is in a death spiral, not be willing to risk big changes is what’s crazy.