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!