Responses to a pile of critics

By Steve Outing

My April 1 Editor & Publisher Online column (not an April Fools joke) about ending my long-held subscription to my local newspaper’s print edition generated a fair bit of controversy in the form of letters to E&P. I apologize for not responding more promptly, but it’s been a crazy period for me. Belatedly, here are some of the letters received (previously published on Editorandpublisher.com), and my responses to them.

I accept Mastercard and Visa

I find it tragic that the crashing and burning of Steve Outing’s fabulous “new media” empire has left him unable even to afford a subscription to his local paper. We discussed poor Steve’s situation here at the Niagara Falls Reporter this afternoon and decided to take up a collection.

If you could please send along his home address, we will restore his newspaper service, at least until he can get back on his feet.

Mike Hudson
Editor, Niagara Falls Reporter

I enjoyed the humor, Mike. However, I did state that my decision to end my life-long print newspaper reading habit was not about money, other than the fact that the Daily Camera’s price increase put me over the edge and prodded me to do something I’d been ready to do for some time. In fact, the Daily Camera came back with an offer to get me back as a customer at the old price. An increasing number of current print subscribers will come to the same decision over time; I don’t think there’s any escaping that.

What if the newspaper dies?

As the editor of 28,500 circ. (and declining) daily in suburban Pittsburgh, I’m upset and disappointed with Mr. Outing.

He knows our industry still lives off of paying hard-copy customers and advertisers.

Ho-hum, he says, not a problem, just because “online revenues can’t yet match print’s.” Yet? Oh, wise advisor of newspapers and new media expert, when do you expect online revenue to remotely match print revenue? Next month? Next year? Ever?

If my newspaper dies, what happens? Will the Pittsburgh metros and surrounding small dailies suddenly ramp up coverage? Hell, no. They’ll sell the subscriptions they can and continue to ignore the region. Maybe — a big maybe — a weekly paper will (inadequately) replace us.

No, local news will come from our local Web sites. Based on the current ones, they’ll be run by people with no training in journalism with a limited understanding of what is news, how to write it and how to present it. Will they be able financially to hire staff? Rely on citizen-journalists (good luck finding them here)?

TV/radio? They only drive the 25 miles from downtown Pittsburgh now for fires, floods, fornication and sad stories about kitties and puppies.

Maybe local governments will pick up the ball, but those will be community newsletters full of all of the hap-hap-happy news pablum government deems should be known.

Nope, if we go away, there will be virtually no local news for the region. And then all of those former subscribers — like Mr. Outing — will sit around in ignorant despair and boo-hoo about the good old days when there was a local paper.

In the 1990s, our industry started its slow-drip suicide on the web. Thanks, Mr. Outing, for yet-another refill of the I.V. bag.

Jeff Domenick
Editor, Valley News Dispatch, Tarentum, Pennsylvania

The shift that Mr. Domenick writes about is an inescapable fact of life for newspapers. Clinging to newsprint as the audience increasingly switches to digital and online for news and information is a game no publisher can win. If newspapers don’t adapt, frankly, I have little doubt that new entities will arise to take up the slack. Smart people already are making plans to take advantage of the situation, as Dave Morgan pointed out recently in “Benefiting From the Impending Collapse of Big Media.” Says Morgan, “So, as these mighty trees of old media fall, I think that we will see many new-media-like businesses sprout up and flourish in areas where old media had been shielded with its suffocating size and reach.”

Yes, this is likely to be painful. However, there are good ideas out there for saving the newspaper industry from a dire fate. The American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next 2.0 presents some strong recommendations for newspaper companies to transform themselves into “local information and connection utilities.” If I sat in Mr. Domenick’s chair, I’d be thinking about some of those ideas. (And I’m also involved in an initiative that’s aimed at saving newspaper classifieds and returning some of the lost revenues of this last few years. See ReinventingClassifieds.com.)

Beyond the news

I enjoyed your column on life without the print edition. I agree this world is headed there fast, and we probably should be a little concerned.

You see, once the print edition is left to fend for itself on a street corner or single copy newsstand the circulation department will be, the “Mail Room”, editorial staff will be reduced to cover just local mom and pop stories, and advertising will become a difficult place to hold a job. But is that it? No, once we get to the point where a building is no longer needed the printing will be outsourced, all news stories will be outsourced and most everything will be handled by the corporations flagship.

Just because we are naive to the “.Com” era, and we have an online product does not guarantee success in the future. Newspaper corporation will close their smaller newspapers and run those newspaper’s online editions from corporate, the same is true for the editorial and advertising. So what do you have left? A few print editions will survive, but there will be more than enough online news sites to view, which leads us to our next hurdle. Those of us that complain that the newspaper across town keeps taking our readers you haven’t seen anything yet. All online news agencies will be our competition and the one who spends the most money marketing their site will win.

The end result. More jobs will be lost in this industry than in the nation following 9-11.

I agree with you Steve, I can get the same information online anytime I want so why have the print edition delivered? You got me.

The funny thing about history is that it repeats itself, and years after the print edition is gone someone will come up with a brilliant idea for a printed news source and market it just right and we start again. For those of us that are still around when that happens we’ll be saying “newspaper are nothing new, we had them back in the nineties, big ones too.”

Question:. How do we keep the demise of newspapers from happening?

I was in an apartment complex the other day and I saw three newspapers still sitting on the porches of three apartment homes. I asked myself why? Was it because the papers were delivered late and the customer had already left for work? Or is it because there was nothing interesting in the paper to make the reader stop and pick it up?

Answer. Create an interest beyond the news.

Brian Philippsen
Mesa, Arizona

Mr. Phillippsen echoes my sentiments with “Create an interest beyond news.” That’s the thrust of Newspaper Next 2.0, which urges newspaper publishers to craft a strategy of serving the entire community with information and connection, not just serving existing subscribers. I touch on this issue of doing more in my newest column on Editor & Publisher Online, which is about utilizing an edited and vetted version of citizen media to create deep coverage of local niches, utilizing the strength of your professional journalists to create quality content at low cost. Such recommendations do not discount the importance of traditional news coverage, but offer ways to be more than “just a newspaper.”

Local content is still king

I have just read Steve Outing’s column “Life without the print edition” and he has become the new poster boy for why newspapers should not post all their original content online for free. Local editorial content is “king” and the reader will use whatever medium has the content they want. Even teenagers will read a newspaper if there is something of interest in it for them.

Bruce Wood
Champion Newspapers, Chino/Chino Hills, Calif.

I’m not a fan of the idea of newspapers hiding their content behind pay walls online. That’s self-defeating in a big way in a media environment where Google is so important to the average online user’s experience. There’s obviously value in original local reporting that cannot be found elsewhere. But to monetize it, I don’t think you’ll succeed by locking it away. Better would be to find ways to deliver and package it digitally where there’s a high enough convenience factor that it’s worth paying for. And deploy a distributed-web strategy, pushing your content out to wherever your potential readers are. Monetizing local news on a sole website (a newspaper’s) isn’t enough, so figure out how to get it wherever your readers hang out — driving them back to your website, and/or delivering accompanying sponsor messages along with the content wherever it goes (e.g., social networks where many of your readers — and non-readers — spend lots of time now).

Cancel his subscription

If this is the kind of articles and support you and your writers will give to our newspaper industry, I will be dropping my E&P subscription and blocking all of your emails. Mr. Outing, you need to change industry, try radio, it is free. Oh, wait, they get all their local news and info from our front page of the print edition, everyday.

How disappointing to read your ‘honest’ views on the newspaper business. Yes, why buy the cow when you can have the steak for free. Why doesn’t my satellite service allow me to unbundle all the crap they make me take? Why can’t I get the seven or eight channels that I really want and only pay for them, kind of like your thoughts on the comics? You know the answer just like we all do.

You totally failed to address all the preprints and peripheral information that comes in the newspaper on a weekly basis. Study after study (see NAA and E&P) indicates that an extremely high percentage of people that receive the newspaper do so for the preprints and advertisements. I see it in my own home with my wife and daughters. Sunday morning, I take my pile, she takes hers and we drink our coffee in peace.

Note directly to E&P, shame on you; for not thinking about what Steve spews on our industry.

Ken Clements
Advertising Director, Post Register, Idaho Falls, Idaho

I hope Mr. Clements doesn’t cancel his subscription, because in his position he needs to be aware of all manner of thinking about how the newspaper industry is going to survive in the coming years, and perhaps turn around around what looks to be years of negative growth ahead. While I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with every idea that I “spew” in my column, I do hope that everyone is open-minded about options for going forward and wants to consider a wide range. E&P presents many views, including mine.

As for pre-prints (aka, inserts or circulars), Mr. Clements is right that they remain strong. I think that Sunday print newspaper readership can remain stronger than weekday due to consumers getting the Sunday paper for the ads. But I don’t think this situation will last forever.

Rearranging the deck chairs

If my hometown paper landed on my driveway every morning, I’d cancel it, too. If it was actually hitting your doorstep (a less satisfying image for the purposes of a column), you owe an apology to their circ director. Driveway delivery is a service error.

But that’s re-arranging deck chairs.

Even a guy who specializes in being from 40 miles away and owning a briefcase has an obligation to be blunt with his clients about the underlying assumptions.

To grossly oversimplify: the N2 Crew predict that, like the steel and automotive industries, newspapers will progressively abandon their lowest-profit products to their disruptive low-cost/low-quality competitors. To hear N2ers tell it, there is no escape and an honest newspaper consultant would tell owners to sell now…or finance those low-cost/low-quality competitors so that you wind up owning some part of the market even if you have to accept lower margins. As N2 gurus are fond of saying, only populations evolve. Individuals (that would be you and me) die off.

But the thing with Harvard Business School professors like N2’s Clay Christensen (Author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and other very good books) is to remember whom they work for. Harvard no longer produces captains of industry. It produces hedge fund managers. Although clever and well-trained, MBAs see the world through lenses that are, by definition, exquisitely narrow in their field of view, which is Wall Street. They are the people who created and sold the Collateralized Debt Obligation and other masterpieces of America’s finance-dominated economy.

They forget that the rest of America likes to go to work and produce something meaningful.

It’s exciting to peddle sizzle, but somewhere, someone has to be making steaks or the whole thing collapses, as Wall Street periodically learns. This is why I’m fascinated that you think charging for content is a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot strategy. If the Boulder Camera stopped giving away its local content online for a week, what would all the whiz-bang aggregators you mention be sending to you? Day-old material scraped from the AP and a few squibs from the Denver papers and TV stations. The thing with plagiarism is you have to wait for a creative enterprise to make something worth stealing.

Again, I rearrange deck chairs, since the captains of the news industry seem determined to donate our lifeblood to our vanquishers.

But it would be refreshing to hear an E&P columnist whack owners under the chin for short-changing their marketing and training budgets lo these many years and to stand up for the most basic value proposition of all: fee for service.

Are the trainers of America’s hedge fund managers really the people to whom we should be turning for answers?

Probably not. While their insights are useful, we need to be listening to creative types, be they writers, designers or engineers. I think all of us foot-shooters understand that the world is changing. But “Give all your content for awhile until somebody has a cool idea” isn’t a strategy, it’s a capitulation.

Dean Miller
2008 Nieman Fellow, Harvard University

My house has a long driveway, so I never expected to find the paper on my porch. No hard feelings. :) (But that would have been nice on the snowy mornings we get here in Boulder, Colorado.)

I’m sorry, but I just don’t get how newspapers can charge for their news coverage when there are so many other choices. This has been tried many times by various newspapers in the online environment over the years that I’ve been covering this industry, and online users have not demonstrated that they’re willing to pay. Somebody prove me wrong. Good luck with that.

Look beyond what a newspaper has been historically. I think that’s where the money will be found to support the local reporting that is so important to us all.

Cities and suburbs

On my second tour of duty with the now defunct Cleveland Press in the late 1950s to mid-1960s, the paper suffered through a 129-day strike. During that time, major advertisers switched to a suburban chain called the Sun Newspapers. When the strike ended, many of them did not return to The Press because they realized suburbanites wanted ads of stores they patronized outside of inner city Cleveland. Having covered suburbs for The Press, I argued that the paper was too focused on an area suburbanites only came to was for their jobs. They did their shopping in the suburbs, which not only ringed the city but were burgeoning under the influx of people moving to them. I never won the argument.

Too many print papers today still do not realize this. They also do not realize that where once the papers could come out with special editions when breaking events warranted them, the electronic media are instantaneous. However, the explosion of various electronic media too often overwhelms viewers and listeners. Back half a century ago, when television was only in its infancy, I often would get calls in the city room complaining the callers saw or heard something on tv or radio but wanted a fuller explanation.

Yes, the younger generation most often depend on electronic media. Those of us who are part of the Rice Krispies Generation (when we get up in the morning, something goes snap, crackle, or pop) would prefer the paper product. But, it does not seem relevant anymore. Are print newspapers doomed? Maybe cut back, but there still is hope. It seems almost too obvious for print media moguls to understand what their products could do better than the electronic media. For one thing, they could cover the suburbs more in depth. When I worked for the Government as a public information officer at four different agencies, there might be just one reporter covering us. By us, I mean he/she usually never got into the many different departments within our agency where the real news never saw the light of day.

The writing certainly could be better because the talking heads of television are a bore. As the old saying goes, they seem to generate more heat than light. The March 30 edition of The New York Times had what I believe was a record number of corrections. I worked on two different copy desks where such mistakes never would have passed either the city desk to begin with, or our copy desk. When I read news copy, we were ordered to write the headline only out of the first three paragraphs. Try to find that rule observed today because the gist of news articles are buried in what we used to call “once upon a time” leads.

Lastly, I do read some papers online. But, when I go to the print version, I find a different product. If I still commuted to and from work, I think I would find it somewhat difficult to do The New York Times crossword puzzle on a laptop.

David H. Brown
Boynton Beach, Florida

To Mr. Brown’s last point, I’ll just point out that the Apple iPhone and the copycat phones coming down the pike put a credible Internet experience in the palm of your hand. I believe that it won’t be long before we see morning commuters reading and viewing the news on their cell phones, rather than printed newspapers, or laptops. And a friend just purchased an Amazon Kindle, which he’s using instead of the print edition for news. (And BTW, he’s paying a monthly fee for the news service.) Both of those more modern options won’t crowd the person sitting next to you as you turn the electronic page.

News from Joe’s Market

As a former newspaper editor, I was feeling Steve Outing’s pain in letting go of that daily bundle of dead trees. Until recently I subscribed to two newspapers, the Hartford Courant and the NY Times, and I’ve had the same discussions with my wife about whether to keep home delivery. It’s a huge expenditure, and when I recently looked at the annual cost, I quickly realized I can buy a decent laptop for less than that. I dumped the daily delivery of the Times, and I’m about to stop the Courant. Maybe I’ll keep the Sunday papers coming, because there’s no greater pleasure than spending the day with that traditional, though increasingly antiquated information home delivery system. Even so, with an active family, I find I have less time even for that.

Where Mr. Outing has it right is local news. Unfortunately, that is what takes the greatest hit when the layoffs come. I get less and less local news despite paying ever-increasing subscription fees. The question is how does newspaper management pay for local news gathering.

To answer that question, I go back to an incident that occurred in the early ‘80s when I was involved with an all-out effort to increase readership through zoning. At a Chamber of Commerce gathering a reader asked why we didn’t carry more local news. I was taken aback. We had expanded local operations and added reporters, filling untold column inches with local, local, local. What more local news could she possible want? What’s on sale at Joe’s Market.

You see, another casualty of newspaper downsizing is local ad sales staff. Far better to retain the more lucrative advertisers and devote resources there. And that means readers have fewer opportunities to find out what Joe’s has on sale. But imagine if you clicked on a story about your neighborhood and in Google style off to the side was a series of ads from businesses in that neighborhood. Click on Joe’s Market and there is what he has on sale. And like a Google ad, Joe’s pays only for clicks, which doesn’t require a whole lot of human effort, because it’s simply a link to Joe’s website. It takes local to a level you could not find anywhere else and just might be the only way newspapers survive. Otherwise, they become content aggregators, not originators, like just about any other website out there.

Richard Urban
Tolland, Connecticut

Bravo.

Laughable local feeds?

I just read Steve Outing’s April 1 Stop the Presses column, “Life Without the Print Edition.” I agree with Steve that strong local news coverage remains a strength of local newspapers in these challenging times. However, I find laughable his characterization of the “Boulder RSS feed” from Google and Topix, which simply aggregate news content created by newspaper reporters, as alternatives to the Boulder Camera’s local news. In most markets, the local newspaper is the only source of in-depth and watchdog journalism at the local level. If newspapers can’t find a way to draw revenue from the Web, they will no longer be able to pay their reporters and photographers, and the Web aggregators won’t have anything left to aggregate.

Also, it might be true that people will be willing to pay for the convenience of a customized report containing news about topics in which they are interested. That’s great if you happen to know those topics. Some of the time, you will need to know those topics before they ever become topics. But for the rest of us mortals, I find such a concept unsettling. Do we really want a society that only knows about things they think they care about? I didn’t know I was interested in veterans affairs before two very talented Washington Post reporters uncovered scandalous living conditions at Walter Reed Medical Hospital.

Jeff Parrott
Reporter, South Bend (Ind.) Tribune

I think the point that Mr. Parrott is missing is that a good “Boulder RSS feed” contains information from many sources, some non-traditional. Look in your community and you’ll likely find local bloggers writing about things that the local newspaper misses. There’s loads of local information being published on the web that’s of interest to micro-communities, but no one really is tapping that much yet. Taking the Newspaper Next 2.0 approach of the newspaper transformed into local information and connection utility, publishers should be looking at providing useful “feeds” that take everything that’s going on in their communities and filtering it for community members hungry for information that’s relevant to them. The mistake many newspaper publishers make is focusing too much on the content they produce, and not looking outside to see how they can leverage everything else that’s available on the Internet about their communities.

I’m really not talking about everyone getting a feed of just what they’re interested in. No one seriously thinks that’s a great idea.

Where will you go for news?

Just one question for Mr. Outing: Where will you go for your news when the newspapers die for lack of revenue? Online revenues will never equal the print model and cannot support the editorial and business staffs necessary to do a good job of reporting and disseminating the information. We are rapidly moving to a world where the news comes from citizen sources and blogs (basically the same thing). But those citizen sources and blogs rely on the news outlets. Without them, there’s nothing to blog about.

Ken Anderberg
Publisher/Editor, Communications News, Nokomis, Florida

My answer is somewhere above. If newspapers fail to adapt, others not burdened by high cost structure and eager to serve a need and make some money will arise. I think we’d all prefer to see newspapers adapt. That means letting go of the (slowing) print gravy train as focal point of your business and serving news consumers where they want to be — which certainly will be more challenging, there’s no doubt about that.

“Online revenues will never equal the print model” is not a statement I agree with. It’s true if newspapers decide to stay in the same business they are in now. It can be different if they reinvent themselves and take advantage of the opportunities available in the Internet world. Or are newspaper people just not as smart as those who started Google, Yahoo, eBay, Monster.com, MySpace, Facebook, et al?

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

2 Responses to "Responses to a pile of critics"

  1. […] There was something else I noticed in all those posts: a number that rang with journalists’ anger, which is surely connected to that sense of jeopardy. An example: Steve Outing felt some of the wrath in responses to his post on why he had stopped subscribing to the local daily. He enumerates (and answers) some of them in Responses to a pile of critics. It’s instructive reading. […]

  2. Christian Casiño
    Christian Casiño 6 years ago .Reply

    This article is interesting! Thank you for sharing us this article!

    “If newspapers fail to adapt, others not burdened by high cost structure and eager to serve a need and make some money will arise.”
    -Newpapers could be of high demand because it is were people find information. We can make money if we produce newspaper which are adored by many.

Leave your comment