It is time to take a more serious look at the death of the media than we have in the past. We here at Mock, Paper, Scissors have said that the world has a need for journalists and journalism (and we still believe that), but it does not have a need for newspapers.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love my morning paper. There is nothing like reading the SF Chronicle with my trusty red pen in hand and my cuppa coffee in the other. It would be a shame for the kind of editing thrill I get each morning to just vanish. But I digress.
The problem with newspapers — and the much-shouted death of the media — comes down to the business model, and I cannot stress this enough. US Newspapers, the physical dead-tree stuff, are not in the business of bringing you the news. The US Newspaper business model is about putting print advertising in your hands. Think about that for just a moment, the absolute inefficiency of it. Everyday hundreds of people work to bring to your door a bit of print with all the ads that Corporate America wants you to have in your hands. Each day! It is amazing.
If US Newspapers could continue publishing without newsrooms, they would. In fact, they are trying to do just that.
This is the thing we are seeing right now, this very minute: US Newspapers are laying off reporters, closing bureaus, canceling entire sections of their “content” — generally the features sections, and local sections; sports and business are sacred. Simultaneously, they are raising subscription rates for less content, and turning more and more to wire services to create fill for in-between the advertisements.
This is clearly not sustainable. And if you notice, this has nothing to do with the Internet.
The US Newspapers are telling us that the Internet is killing them, that Craig’s List is killing them, and so on. While I think that the Internet plays a role, it is not the role of media-killer anymore than radio or television killed the newspaper. The Internet is not a competitor, it is a delivery mechanism. It still requires content.
Last time I checked, the Internet was a global phenomenon, accessible in Europe, Asia, Japan, etc… Oddly, the newspapers in Europe and elsewhere (but not the US) are surviving the Internet age. European papers get most of their funding from selling the papers, not selling the advertising. The Guardian is owned by a public trust, and it is not strictly speaking a for-profit enterprise.
Why is this difference significant, you ask?
Because with real content, really well researched journalism and a focus on excellence, the readership grows. They know in Europe that they had better put out some real content, good content that serves their readers well. If they cut reporters, bureaus, close down feature sections, Europeans are going to stop reading the papers there, just like we have here.
US newspapers are not losing readers because of free news on the Internet, they are losing readers because the print content is going away. If Newspapers stop covering the news, especially the local news, then the newspapers have stopped doing what they do best and what their readers demand of them. No wonder the readers are fleeing: they are trying to find out what is going on in their world.
Case in point: I cannot find out about what is going on at San Jose City Hall reading the San Jose Mercury News, they don’t cover it, or at least not all of it. I can find out what is going on only by reading the City of San Jose’s website, and various blogs from local concerned citizens and activists. This is what I meant by the need for journalists and journalism. The web has made us all journalists.
There is a lot of noise about making newspapers’ websites accessible for subscribers only, and as the NY Times Select showed us, it is a failed model. The news organizations discovered two things with it: 1) no one wanted to pay for access, and 2) no one accessed it and their ad rates dropped.
Just like a blog (for instance, Mock, Paper, Scissors — if I may be so bold), US newspapers need to create compelling content to bring readers to their sites and keep them coming back. Making readers pay for AP stories is not going to be the business model that saves the news industry.
I don’t pretend to know what the next model will be for the newspapers, but I do know that real content will drive readers to it, regardless of the delivery mechanism. I hope that it will be the Internet. I’d like to save the trees.