No solution to newspaper problems? Hah!

By Steve Outing

I must say, I’ve never felt this pessimistic about the future of newspaper companies. (Thanks, API for suggesting a suicidal strategy to the industry.) Sure, I’ve been uncertain for a LONG time that newspaper companies could make a graceful transition into the digital age, but I’d felt that when things got bad enough for the industry, newspaper executives would be forced to try some of the “radical” ideas that new-media pundits (including me) espouse, rather than crouch into a defensive position as seems to be happening.

No longer do I have much confidence that newspaper CEOs and publishers will do the right thing, but there are still plenty of obvious things (well, apparently not obvious to many tradition-bound, unyielding newspaper executives) that they could do to save their companies:

  • Transform the company to digital-first, and stop putting most of the energy into saving print revenues. (Focus on the future, not the past. D’uh!)
  • When the time comes (for many papers, it’s here now), reduce the number of days the print edition is published (keep that print insert business alive a while longer) and rely on web and mobile distribution of news and advertising the rest of the week, transitioning the print audience to the new way, including paid digital-replica editions for the older demographic that still craves the “print experience.”
  • Stop shipping newspapers long distances any day of the week and transition far-flung customers to web, e-mail, RSS, and/or mobile news versions of your news product.
  • Go full-bore on a mobile-phone strategy for news and targeted (and geo-targeted) advertising, including creating mobile news apps with enough value and utility that people will be willing to pay for them. Understand that mobile may become the core news distribution in the near future.
  • Stop spending money on locally producing what others do better online, thereby cutting expenses, and focus on the newspaper’s core competencies of local news coverage and community, and performing effective watchdog journalism. Do you really need a D.C. bureau? A local movie reviewer? A full-time food editor?
  • Dump stocks pages of day-old listings, and the daily page of TV listings, and movie-time listings from the print edition. Use a small amount of space to point print readers to web and mobile versions, which might be the newspaper’s own or someone else’s.
  • As Jeff Jarvis says, create the best and link to the rest.
  • Turn to an agency model for advertising, selling not just into the company’s own print and digital products, but also giving advertisers one place for them to turn to get their message smartly distributed throughout the confusing digital landscape outside of the newspaper company’s product walls. Do this with classifieds as well as with what’s traditionally been called “retail” or “display” advertising. And offer free classifieds to compete with Craigslist, et al, but make money on upsells and from the agency role of placing a customer’s ads into multiple digital venues.
  • Accept that the web is about free and stop fighting it. (Learn from the music industry’s profound mistakes.) Develop “freemium” strategies for the web and mobile, where tiers of any particular service are offered, from free to several dollars a month; but always have a free option that offers some real value and isn’t just a ruse to get people to upgrade to paid immediately because the free version is so pathetic.
  • Create and encourage newspaper readers and digital users to join a “membership program” with an automatic monthly or annual fee that not only gives them access to some special or premium content or services produced by the newspaper (say, personalization), but also offers a killer discount and freebies card (or mobile phone app) that leverages existing advertisers, brings them lots of new customers, and gives paying members so much value that they’d be crazy to pass on paying for a membership. Create tiered levels of such memberships, so everyone can afford to participate. Use that money, which can be significant if done right, to supplement ad revenues and support the newsroom.
  • Allow various ways for readers to voluntarily support the news-gathering operation, from voluntary networks that distribute monthly contributions based on what websites or blogs a user chooses to support (e.g., Kachingle); from networks that offer access to “premium” content across many websites and spread the money among the sites (e.g., Contenture); from tipping mechanisms that allow readers to contribute whatever they want to support either a site, a particular writer, or even a specific article (e.g., Payyattention, Tipjoy); etc. Online, give some control to the user to pay what he/she thinks your content is worth.
  • Innovate, innovate, innovate on digital advertising, recognizing that it will continue to be the core revenue stream online and with mobile.
  • Innovate some more in coming up with more new revenue streams, because you’ll need more to make up for less advertising money than in the past.
  • Stop behaving as though other traditional media are competitors and start cooperating with them, including expansive cross-promotion.

If newspaper companies deployed all those strategies and more, the printed newspaper would be a smaller product that it is even today. But it would retain what’s best, reposition staff to focus on developing new online and mobile revenue opportunities, and live to fight another day. The newspaper industry likely would be smaller, but that’s an improvement over continuing layoffs and bankruptcies. Remaining newsroom staff would focus on what’s important. New newsroom jobs will be created as new digital services are devised that have a business model supporting them. But publishers wouldn’t be wasting money on content that’s been replaced by services on the web and mobile devices, but publishers don’t want to admit it.

Alas, our wise old newspaper CEOs (many of them; let’s not paid too broad a brush) remain headed down a path to regain control over their content and pry more money out of Google. The strategy seems geared to getting them through to retirement and squeezing the last of the dollars out of an industry that they can’t figure out how to reinvent.

I’m fine with a new wave of entrepreneurs, visionaries, and academics inventing the news after newspapers. That’s happening right now. We’ll muddle through and figure out a new news infrastructure that serves society in the way newspapers used to do — no, actually, better once it’s matured.

The depressing part is seeing the industry’s current leaders essentially give up. And the backward strategy espoused by that API report is just that: an acknowledgment that “we newspaper leaders can’t figure this out, so we’ll go backward.”

The newspaper industry is seeing bankruptcies, layoffs, the loss of serious watchdog journalism, and a sickening decline in quality because of the “situation.” While a sour economy is clearly a big part of the problem, the biggest problem is that the industry’s leaders seem to think there are no good solutions other than wading in the ocean and pushing back the waves (i.e., tectonic changes in consumer behavior and advertiser spending patterns).

Yet there are many, many solutions being offered, just a few of which I mentioned in the list above. What is wrong with the newspaper industry’s top leaders? Do they only listen to each other? Can anyone explain?

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!

11 Responses to "No solution to newspaper problems? Hah!"

  1. Chris O'Brien
    Chris O'Brien 8 years ago .Reply

    They’re in too much debt. Anyone can try anything as long as it doesn’t involve spending new money, or changing anything that brings in a single dollar.

  2. Dan Pacheco
    Dan Pacheco 8 years ago .Reply

    Here’s my slightly different take on that API strategy. Newspapers are basically geocentric in their thinking, much like the Catholic Church in the 1600s. Like Galileo, they need to realize that they are no longer at the center of everything, if they ever were. I elaborate more on my blog:

  3. Larry Chandler
    Larry Chandler 8 years ago .Reply

    Free classifieds is a great idea. First, it can be limited to perhaps 3-4 lines, and if anyone wanted bold face or more than minimum lines a charge can be added. But mainly if there are lots of classified ads, all free, people might want to buy the paper to read the ads. And if the ads are free and both in print and online, it would offer something Craigslist cannot.

  4. robb Montgomery
    robb Montgomery 8 years ago .Reply

    Nice post, Steve.

    Indeed, many U.S. newspaper leaders have not shown that they understand that change management is a process. Your post actually points them down the CM path. Publishers will have to create new and different print and digital products that serve a wider range of niche needs.

    Web Video, I would add, should be looked at invested in as a core digital product. On many levels there is room for creating a unique digital proposition and also earn the highest ad rates available online.

    So many news bosses have not understood the potential for building out a rich Web video strategy. They looked to TV for style and then to packaged solutions like “video players” for playback. Wrong, and wrong.

    Too bad. There is so much more potential but so much of the thinking is not based on user patterns and expectations. Only they seem to be based on old rules of broadcasting.

    Point number 1)
    If you design it so your ads to travel with your video content then you are on the right track. Give away the embed codes to your clips, engage the viral distribution networks of your users . . . Geesh – there is so much potential to build viable, branded and unique video products, services and experiences for people and advertisers.

    Just boggles the mind that these companies are led by people without the experience or vision to carry out life-saving initiatives like this.

  5. Chip Kaye
    Chip Kaye 8 years ago .Reply

    Terrific list of initiatives Steve – I share your pain.

    I work on the web at a small daily and I think one of the keys to understanding the problem is in recognizing the true structure of newspapers. Fundamentally, newspapers are complex organizations in terms of human workflow and moving information, burnished in the context of producing a daily print publication. And because the business hinges on the unyielding deadlines of a printing press, and always has, change tends to be slow and incremental. So, now we’ve got an organization where everybody – from the CEO to the journalists to the ad sales staff to the pressmen – thinks in terms of a highly evolved process that resists change. In this system, change is either a problem to fix or something new to consider suspiciously. And along comes the web, blows it all up, and demands: INNOVATE! Change not just *some* things, but EVERYTHING. And that demand is made of an organization optimized for little to change, where innovation has largely been absent from the culture because it hasn’t been necessary.

    From the outside looking in, the snails-pace movement of the newspaper industry is fustrating, even depressing to watch. But it’s not impossible to understand: there is a big difference between prescribing change and the heavy lifting required to actually implement it.

  6. Patrick Thornton
    Patrick Thornton 8 years ago .Reply


    Your suggestions are so simple, and yet they do so much good. It often seems that execs in industries under great strain miss the obvious easy fixes and only look for big ticket items or litigation.

    I’m shocked at the amount of non-local coverage still in many newspapers today. No, everyone doesn’t need a DC reporter, and how many movie reviewers does one country really need?

    There is a lot of low hanging fruit that you point to, and I hope more newspapers start plucking it.

    But I do fear that Chris is right. Many newspaper companies may simply have too much debt and be in a death spiral.

  7. Stu Lowndes
    Stu Lowndes 8 years ago .Reply

    No solution to newspaper problems (idiocy)?


    What would make newspaper CEOs and publishers listen?

    Money. Shareholders. Advertisers.

    Who gives a damn!

    We do.

    Unfortunately, these so-called titans in a dying industry have our balls in a credit-crunch, and we have nowhere else to go. The majority of scribes are clogs in a printing machine, like it or not. But we all need to make a living and we happen to like what we do, most of the time.

    After all, it’s the only salaried game in town.

    Pssst! A little secret …

    We – not publishers – are the newspaper.

    Without us, they are simply accountants of the Fourth Estate.

    “I don’t create anything,” Citizen Kane said. “I own.”

    And what, exactly, do they own?

    That is, besides the scribes who churned the copy … that created the eyeballs … that sold the advertising … that made them rich and powerful and beyond the reach of those on the editorial firing line? But, hey, we sometimes get a free turkey at Christmas!

    Meanwhile, what are we doing about this never-ending story?

    Sitting on our ass, making with the mouth, grasping at straws, and, as Steve Outing said, starting to act like “waiters” and hoping for a few crumbs to fall from the table. This is not quite in context, but you do get the image, don’t you?

    “Tips” for a journalist?

    Ya gotta be kiddin’!

    We don’t need a business model for newspapers; We need one for ourselves.

    How can we, as fellow scribes, make the publishers, the investors, the number-crunchers, the advertisers, and the general public accept and adopt the only existing alternative to newspapers: The Net and the digital delivery of news.

    If we have failed in trying to convince newspaper publishers to see things our way, and the many truths and facts of our economic and industry situation, they deserve to go down the tube, slow but sure. And we are allowing it to happen … to us.

    We have tried to find the answers with their eyes.

    It’s time to use our own.

  8. Steve Farrell
    Steve Farrell 8 years ago .Reply

    The point of payyattention’s voluntary payments (don’t like the word “tip”–see below) is to promote and support individual articles that we, the readers, value most. It may help newspaper publishers, but only insofar as they produce articles that compete in the open and evolving technical landscape of the internet for readers attention and dollars. It is a tool to help ourselves promote and support better and new journalism, to take control of what we read.

    By the way, I don’t like the word “tip” because it brings baggage from another context. Primarily, that “the man” makes the real money and the worker gets crumbs. But who’s “the man” in the online journalism situation who gets the meaty sums? Even Google is willing to gather trillions of fractions of pennies off the floor in the form of ad impressions.

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  11. Sebastian D.
    Sebastian D. 7 years ago .Reply

    Here are some excellent solutions for saving the printed word.

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