Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Real Problem Isn't Paper

Over at "Reflections of a Newsosaur," Alan Mutter has been at the center of a large discussion because of his ongoing series showing that 1) newspapers can't afford to go digital-only, 2) newspapers nevertheless have failed to react to market changes over the last decades, and 3) he believes that the only solution is to start charging per article online.

In saying this, of course, he is being shot at with the usual ammunition. But the comments show that the real discussion is not in the end about whether there is a printed product called a newspaper -- or even a nonprinted product called a newspaper. What we are discussing is whether journalism as we have known it for 100 years -- the presentation of news by professional journalists, working for or with organizations whose avowed purpose (though they fall short) is to accurately, fairly and disinterestedly report on significant human activities, and done in a redacted manner that tries to at some point separate the wheat from the chaff and present the reader with the significance of it all -- is even what heavy Web users are looking for, and whether our journalistic organizations are simply holding a losing hand in trying to play their game there.

Consider these comments:

"The only way newspapers can successfully charge for content is by creating unique and valuable information."And here is the the stumbling block. Journalism doesn't give anyone the capacity to create unique information. You either stumble onto it or arrive at it in the course of your endeavors.

"Hence the situation that a biochemist with a degree in business communications is going to write a better article on a new pain reliever, and describe it in his blog which will be picked up by aggregators long before a journalist can bring himself up to speed as far as understanding the subject well enough to write about it.

"You aren't gatekeepers anymore. people don't even want a gate."

Well, leave aside for now the question of how many biochemists have degrees in business communications... You stumble onto it or arrive at it. A reporter or editor does not find it for you and point it out. This somewhat negates the entire purpose of a newsroom.

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"Giving away their VALUABLE content for free ? Until last year, I subscribed to the WSJ, the best newspaper I ever read or hope to read. But many days I never opened it because I was saturated from reading the web before the Journal arrived at 11:30 in the mail. As good as I still think the journal is, I'd spent all the reading time I had in the early morning before I started working. The valuable content was the same but it wasn't as valuable as my time. Might as well offer me another meal right after lunch. ...

"..I choose the articles I read based on the headline or titles I see at news compendiums such as Lucianne, or Real Clear politics. When the article is behind a firewall, even requiring something as simple as a login, I hit 'back' and go elsewhere. The web is a giant smorgy and I don't have the patience or the time to read everything I even want to read, much less something that irks me to get to. I won't jump through any hoops and I know I'm not alone in this. The web is a glut of good articles and I'll try another I haven't read yet. This mitigates against the value of what you are trying to sell. There are more good articles than I'll ever find the time to read and I know that. Your 'valuable' articles arn't worth the hassle of signing up for, or paying for, not even a mill or a mite."

One realizes, of course, that this person is saying: There is so much to read, that I don't really care if it is by a team of five reporters at the Journal backed up by a string of editors, or if it is one person's opinion made up of whole cloth. I just want to read something interesting. The difference between a good article and a not-good article is whether I want to read it, not the qualifications and effort that produced it.

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And finally:

"The fundamental idea behind the paid content model is flawed, in part because the last great hurdle that newspaper folks can't get beyond is that the 'article' model is a relic of the old business model. That's not to suggest it doesn't have value, but ... when you think about it ... the article is not a very good way to organize information on the web. An article's shelf-life is tiny, they're usually long and difficult to scan and, nine times out of ten, you have no idea if the information contained is researched and reliable on a longer scale.

"Yet we publish article after article after article ... why? Because that's the business model we know.

"Ever try to gather information about a city council by trawling a newspaper site? I have and God have mercy on your soul if you ever try. The information is thin, scattered about, and ... at most sites ... any article older than a couple weeks (car accident or mayoral profile) has been spirited away behind another fence somewhere. ...

"Newspapers piss away more information in a 24-hour news cycle than most web sites post in a calendar year. Why? Because they won't invest in codifying it into a useful, searchable form. Instead, they repurpose 'stories' that will be worthless within a day and gone -- whether relevant or not -- within two weeks, anyway. It's an absolute waste of an overwhelmingly dominant position in most markets....

"What would I do? What most (non newspaper) sites do. Offer a base free product and monetize the crap out of just about everything else. The Wall Street Journal enjoyed some success at paid subscriptions because it offers deep, online profiles of companies ... profiles that are (or at least, were) worthwhile to investors.

"Where's the depth newspapers have developed that people might pay for? ... Do you think there might be a market for a t-shirt featuring the sports page from dad's state championship. Maybe a mug with grandma and grandpa's wedding announcement?

"Why isn't the business staff at major papers cranking out e-books detailing the market status of different sectors, ready to be downloaded at $5 a pop? Why haven't the entertainment staffs doing e-book biographies of local musicians ... or actors ... or whatever? Podcasts of interviews with local heroes and stars available for "upgraded" members?

"Not easy ... it'll take a huge investment (cash, not just stretching out already beleaguered staffers' time a little bit more) and patience, but a model could be built that ... along with targeted advertising and niche sites (general interest is dead, folks) should be able to sustain a nice operation, indefinitely.Will it be the same? No .... but is that such a bad thing, really?"

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Television news wandered around for two decades before it realized that people weren't looking to have a newspaper-structured story read to them, with visuals in the way that photos illustrate a newspaper story. They were looking for visual information with narration.

Newspapers have not yet come to terms with their fundamental problem on the Internet: Publishing on the Internet is not the same as replacing film with digital storage in a camera. Take the film away and you have allowed the user to take 320 pictures at the wedding instead of 24 -- but they are still pictures. The picture is the product.

Newspapers thought that the Internet was going to be simply an endless roll of newsprint without ink and trucking costs, but they would still have their product. It's not. It's a completely different product for the end user than a newspaper; one might say it is a completely different environment than the one of the physical reality in which newspapers exist. As such, what newsrooms are set up to do -- have a staff to write, edit and present news stories -- is not what the heavy user of the Web is looking for.

If they don't value what newspapers do, why would they pay for it, in print or on the Web? They didn't abandon newspapers because they were printed. They abandoned newspapers because they are no longer interested in what we have known as news -- a mediated news product, a snapshot in time.

I don't think that newspapers could ever create a working business model off trying to satisfy such customers, but if they tried to, they would have to in essense shut down their current operations, probably fire most of their remaining people (not for economic reasons but because what they do and are trained to do is to cover the news and create stories), bring on people with a completely different orientation, market themselves as an entirely different organization -- which, let's be honest, they are not going to do, any more than General Motors or Macy's or Pfizer is going to do.

Thus the future of newspapers depends upon identifying and serving those people who want the service that a newspaper and its newsroom and advertising can provide, and forgetting about trying to satisfy the people who are quite glad to take the odd scrap that falls off the table free but who do not have enough interest in the newspaper, its newsroom, its advertising and its purpose -- to convene a physical community, to present a public agenda, to serve as a spotlight and a conscience -- to ever pay one bloody cent for what it does. Those people will try to convince you that they, and only they, are the future; but why should that be so any more than that traditional newspaper readers would be the future? They just have the megaphone of the Web, and apparently a lot of time.

If you mainly exist in the endless, nontemporal world of the Internet, you simply will not have any use for a newspaper, glued as it is to location and time. You might be interested in an occasional news story, but not to where you would actually pay anyone to write it (or read advertising that paid the bills), because you might be just as interested in an Australian ophthalmologist's four paragraphs on the single tax. Trying to save daily journalism by appealing to them is like trying to save the sugar business by appealing to diabetics.

3 comments:

Gina Chen said...

I think you make some really important points.

One of the best is where you explain about your WSJ subscription coming too late by mail to do you any good. Your comparison to giving someone a meal after lunch is perfect.

I think that really goes to much of the heart of the crisis in newspapers. Yes, it's about Craigslist stealing classified ads, yes its about people turning to the Web, yes it's about the economy's dive which made ad revenues evaporate.

But essentially, the crisis is because newspapers were used to giving readers what they thought readers needed how and when they wanted to give it. Newspapers were governed by their own internal routines, not what serves the reader best. It was almost a parental model: "You'll wear a sweater because I'm cold" OR "you'll clean your plate because I said so."

I'm exaggerating a bit but I had an editor recently tell me that even if we knew people didn't read half the content of our newspaper, we'd still produce it. Why?

Davisull said...

Thanks for the comment. For the record, those were not my personal examples; they were taken from postings on "Newsosaur."

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