I think we can all agree that the newspaper industry is in dire straits. My previous post on the most recent round of layoffs and who's to blame for the industry's problems is already just about the most popular post ever on this blog. I guess I struck a nerve. But it's easy to complain and point fingers. What are some possible solutions to the problems–if they're solvable at all? How can we fix what's broken with newspapers?
I've been writing on that subject since beginning this blog in late 2006. Some of my thoughts on how to change the industry can be found here, which is part of a white paper I wrote a few months ago on the transition from print to digital. More suggestions are here. But another set of prescriptions can be found in one of my earlier posts, NewspapeRx, which is reprinted, very slightly updated, below. Not all of these ideas are new or original–but what's scary is that 18 months later, very few of them have even been tried (though progress has been made on the first one–about a decade too late).
Unimaginative newspaper managements continue to work off of their old, failed playbook, as the industry–and jobs–go down in flames. Clinging to print, not truly embracing the Web, not listening to customers (advertisers or readers), gutting newsrooms to cut costs, completely failing to invest in innovation–they just aren't working. Try something else. Please.
What would you do if you ran a newspaper?
Somebody asked me that question recently, and it made me pull together some of the thoughts I've had recently about the problems that newspapers are having and what they might do to pull out of their current spiral. This is hardly a complete list, but here's a 10-point prescription for ailing newspapers:
1. Make the Web the primary product.
Stop pasting the newspaper onto a screen. Reorganize the newsroom so that its work appears online as quickly as possible. Breaking news, enterprise and feature stories should be put on the Web as soon as they're ready. Period. The printed paper should be a snapshot of what's online at 11 pm, and that's about it. Publishing on the Web should drive priorities, not publishing in print. And embrace the technology: news Web sites should be full of Web 2.0 goodness like interactive maps, social networking tools, RSS feeds, distribution to mobile devices, etc. Use the medium to its fullest.
2. Local, local, LOCAL!
There are a zillion places to get national and international news, in real time. But newspapers are virtually the only source of truly local news. So why do so many newspapers splash national and international news on the front page and relegate local news to an inside section? Local news is the last unique franchise that newspapers own, and too many newspapers don't seem to understand this. People are cancelling newspaper subscriptions because the product is irrelevant to their lives; local news and information is critical to their lives. That's where the readership gains can be had. (Why do you think local community newspapers are thriving when big metro dailies are shedding circulation?) Every resource available should be thrown at local coverage, newsroom pay and promotions should be tied to excellence of local reporting, the front page of the paper and Web site should be entirely local, and national and international news should be relegated to an inside section. Oh, and it wouldn't hurt to get truly serious about zoning, with editions that are solely devoted to local communities, not just paying them lip service or rearranging existing local content. I don't care what's going on two towns away from me; don't waste newsprint or pixels on it in my edition.
3. If it's widely available elsewhere, don't waste time re-creating it.
Does every newspaper really need its own movie critic? A TV critic? Staff coverage of national sports events that don't involve local teams? Book reviews? Stories from Washington that the AP already has? Expensive foreign bureaus? A sickly thin Sunday magazine? Reporters in hot spots like Iraq? It's going to pain a lot of newspeople to read this, but the answer is unequivocably no. Those resources are just wasted, and way too many of those staffing and coverage decisions are about editorial ego more than serving the reader. The stories that are produced aren't different enough from what's available on the wires (or on countless Web sites) to justify the expense. They just wind up diverting staffing resources that could be devoted to news and information that aren't available elsewhere. See Local, above.
4. Zero-base the news operation.
Pretend you're starting from scratch. Look at everything that's in the paper and ask tough questions about whether it's still necessary in an age when readers have multiple sources of news and information. A lot of what appears regularly in newspapers is there because it's always been there, without anybody taking a hard look at whether it makes any sense any more. Perfect example: It took years for newspapers to understand that the vast majority of readers had switched to getting stock information online, and that pages of stock tables were an expensive anachronism. That's a start. Now apply the same reasoning to sports statistics and box scores (except for local teams), comics (yes comics), syndicated columns, national business news, non-local news briefs, etc. Jeff Jarvis had a draconian, thought-provoking take on this that's worth a read.
5. Get the readers involved.
As Dan Gillmor has elegantly argued, the audience knows more than news people do. Much more. Tap that knowledge by encouraging reader participation in as many ways as possible: contributing news and information about their communities, sending in photos and videos, commenting on everything. This can't be a token effort, and you absolutely cannot be scared or controlling about it: let the readers get involved at every opportunity. It will greatly improve the product and increase readership.
6. Lose the editorial page.
Unsigned editorials are a relic of a bygone era when newspaper barons exerted power in their community. Now they're a liability, misunderstood by most readers. Newsrooms know that there is a wall between editorial opinion and newsgathering; readers don't, and they conclude that editorial positions drive news coverage. That's a huge source of the drumbeat charges of bias in coverage. There are other ways to be vigilant about bias, but getting rid of the traditional editorial page is a big start. Here's a thought: Replace it with reader opinions!
7. Expand the advertising base.
In any market, there are thousands of small advertisers that would never consider advertising in the big local newspaper. It's too expensive and covers too broad an area. But those advertisers want to reach the same people the newspaper does. Find a way to make this happen: more focused zoning, cheaper ads, ad rep pay structures that encourage selling to smaller advertisers. This is another area where community papers are running rings around big dailies. And online competitors are moving in on this turf, too. As large advertisers disappear, newspapers need to find ways to serve smaller businesses.
8. Rethink the classifieds.
Craigslist, Monster.com and countless other news competitors have decimated the newspaper classifieds business. That seems obvious, but a lot of newspapers still are in denial about it. Anybody who's used craigslist knows how much more effective it is than paid newspaper classifieds. Look hard at your classifieds business and make the tough changes to stay competitive. Yes, that may include shifting most of the classifieds online and giving them away for free, in order to keep the critical mass of classifieds that makes them useful. And make sure your online classifieds offering is absolutely world-class, for both advertisers and readers. One of the reasons craigslist works so well is because it's incredibly easy to use. Most newspaper online classifieds sections are clumsy and confusing.
9. Find new ways to serve advertisers.
What newspapers offer advertisers—display ads, classifieds—really hasn't changed much in a century. Look for ways to change that. Get into the Yellow Pages directory business online. Aggressively offer contextual advertising. Use idle newspaper delivery resources to help local businesses with their delivery needs. Use subscription lists to help businesses find customer leads. Explore interactive advertising forms that go way beyond boring banner ads. Offer data services to help businesses manage their inventories or sell things online. It's not enough to simply sell space in the paper or on the Web site. Help advertisers make their businesses more successful.
10. Take chances. Innovate. Be fearless about trying things—and killing things.
Change in the newspaper business is glacial. But the surrounding environment and the competition are changing at light speed. The time is long past for incremental, evolutionary steps—newspapers need to think out of the box, try things that previously were unthinkable, and be prepared to quckly and ruthlessly abandon efforts (old and new) that aren't working. This requires a major cultural shift—as a wise editor once said to me, there's virtually no history of research and development in the newspaper business, which is odd considering that covering the news is a daily act of research and development. Let's face it: The single biggest innovation in print newspaper journalism in the past decade or so is...Sudoku. Newspapers can and must do better than that to survive.