Friday, May 25, 2012

Will local newspapers adapt or die?

New Orleans has become the latest (and biggest?) major city in the United States to cease having a daily newspaper. The Times-Picayune, celebrated for its work and investigative journalism during and after Hurricane Katrina, will now publish in print only three days a week.

Will other dailies, especially smaller local and regional ones, evolve or will they keep patting themselves on the back and telling what’s left of their readership “You’ll miss us when we’re gone”? So far, they've preferred the latter.

Most seem to think 'evolving' constitutes posting videos on their websites. When I visit a newspaper website, it doesn't even occur to me to watch a video -- that's not what I go there for -- unless someone I know has told me they're in it. I don't know of anyone who does otherwise. 

This is really part of the smoke-and-mirrors (or razzle-dazzle lasers) approach most papers are taking to avoid truly transformative action that might actually save their business. Videos. Semi-paywalls. Giving blogs to people who already have columns. None of this matters.

Truly revolutionary change in the newspaper industries would be for local newspapers to focus on *local* news. Drop the wire service for everything (except for the cartoons and puzzles which I guess people freak out about if messed with). Take the money you save and use it to invest in more local reporters and better local journalism.

The national and international news they publish is half-a**ed crap written which is usually hacked for space reasons to the point of being... well... pointless. No one *pays* for The Post-Star or Saratogian for national or international news, when they can get the same stuff for *free*, and much better quality, from hundreds of different websites or, for that matter, on television. 

Local papers ought to focus exclusively on local content. Why? Because that's the one thing that's truly unique. It's the one thing they offer that people, particularly in smaller areas, can't get anywhere else. If it's truly unique, they're more likely to be willing to pay for it. If a newspaper is 30% unique customer and 70% stuff you can get for free else where, it diminishes the value of the entire product. If the newspaper is 90% or 100% unique content, then it has a much greater value to the potential customer.

Most newspaper people will read this and adopt the ostrich approach. They will call me naive and say "I don't understand" blah blah blah. Well, there is one thing I do understand. Circulation numbers for most papers are down, some way down. Some papers, even major ones, are going out of business or ceasing to be dailies. That's not me talking. That's the market talking. The band-aid-on-a-flesh-wound strategy isn't working. This isn't the time for the timid newspaper man. They'd better act. And they'd better act boldly and decisively before the newspaper ostriches go the way of the dodo.

Update: Also, it's not exactly the smartest business strategy to tut-tut commenters to your newspaper website for their poor spelling and then misspell (or not bother to notice the copy-pasted misspelling of) the name of your paper's own city, as did "Glen Falls" Post-Star editor Ken Tingley.

Also see: my earlier essay The Decline and Fall of the Newsprint Empire.


Anonymous said...

You make an interesting point in going all-out local. And while I don't profess to have suggestions in that regard, the issue I take is with poor writing - not necessarily grammatical skill - as much as style.
Spare me the re-written press releases with the cut & paste text and the resulting sentence of commentary secured via the two quick phone calls (one made to either side of the issue).
Get out of the office, put down the phone, and actually go somewhere.
Do tell me what the mayor said during a meeting, but also show me, in words, how his body language bolstered, or alternately betrayed the intent of his promise.
Tell me the national unemployment figures, but also do provide me a seat at the dining room table during an intimate discussion with the man who has worked all his life and has nothing to show for it.
I want to see the setting sun as it casts a long shadow across the face of a man sold on the broken promises of the American Dream turned-nightmare.
Follow him as he makes his way down the booby-trapped path of the 21st century; I want to know if he crawls defeated, a victim of the times, or, ascends and emerges a hero.
Journalism is not a hobby and it should be paid for, but stop being so damn lazy and give me something worth paying for.

- just my two cents worth.

Stephen said...

I dunno. Only about 20% of folks ever read the "Local" section of their newspapers in the past. Hyperlocal sites exist and are surviving in some cases, but it's been around for 15 years now. If hyperlocal was gonna thrive, it would have happened by now. Most sites putting out hyperlocal news have done dismally and closed or become latent.
About 8 or 10 years ago, the Associated Press did a major policy decision to market their product at bargain basement prices to Yahoo and Google news in order to extend the reach of the 1400 or so papers that own the collective Associated Press. This was hotly contested by a very small number of papers, who felt that the AP should either not provide that service to aggregators, or make it very expensive. I think one of two things will happen.
1. As newspapers die, and their product to the AP goes away, the news provided by the AP will become very threadbare. Yahoo News and Google News and sites that cut and paste from them, will become wastelands. The remaining newspapers will do alright.
2. THe AP will change course, and start to charge A LOT more, or it will just agree to disband itself for the sake of the newspapers that own it. Same effect.

That, or the remaining slack in news will be taken up by bloggers, tweeters and the public relations departments of large corporations. Shell Oil and Exxon will tell us about what's happening in Saudi Arabia. Goldman Sachs and other financial services companies like Bloomberg and Thompson-Reuters will tell us what is happening in New York. They will heavily pay a legion of bloggers to tell us what is happening. They will have gobs of cash and huge reach. A legion of scandals will follow. Someone will come up with the bright idea to come up with an independent news source to try to be more objective. People will call it a newspaper.

Brian said...

Stephen: I wasn't talking about hyperlocal web sites. I was talking about local NEWSPAPERS.

Brian said...

Stephen: are you telling me that most people who buy the Post-Star or Saratogian today do so because for national and international news rather than local content? Sorry, I don't buy it.

Mark Wilson said...

A recent article on the arrest of underage drinkers at a Lake George NYSDEC campground did not report the names of the 26 youths involved. Sometimes less local "news" is an improvement.

Brian said...

The article stated that names were not released. Makes you wonder why they didn’t make a big spectacle of filing a FOIL request (and then writing an article/blog entry about it) like they’ve done in many other instances.