For newspapers, there is no magic bullet.
Charging for online content is not a magic bullet—in fact, in most cases, it may do more harm than good.
Micropayments are not a magic bullet—though they may (or may not) bring in a few extra pennies of revenue for the Wall Street Journal.
The Amazon Kindle (even in doublewide mode) is not a magic bullet—especially when Apple unleashes its rumored large-screen iPhone, aka the Kindle-killer.
Punishing Google is not a magic bullet—indeed, it's a short-sighted strategy that can devastate traffic and ad revenue.
Repeat: There is no magic bullet. In fact, most of the bullets just listed are of the dumb-dumb variety (as opposed to dum-dum, nitpickers). They reflect the thinking of executives and journalists who don't really understand the business of journalism, the reality of the new Internet-driven world, or what consumers are looking for these days. Mostly, they're defensive maneuvers, tired attempts to salvage a print-centric business model that is close to long gone.
Instead, news companies need to be working hard to innovate, to reach audiences in new ways, to create new forms of newsgathering and presentation and to pursue truly new revenue streams. That's a tough prescription in a time of across-the-board cutbacks, and no, there's no guarantee of success for many of the freshest ideas. But at a time when Rupert Murdoch reportedly is spending money for a crash project to find ways charge for content, or the New York Times, Washington Post and other publishers are fiddling with Kindle and other magic tablets while their industry burns, maybe they and others should be looking at other ways to, well, survive.
Here are some suggestions for things the industry in which the industry should be investing serious money and resources—and longtime readers know there's nothing really new here. But until we see some real attempts to break from hoary old business models and stale ideas, these still are wildly innovative by the standards of stodgy, unimaginative mainstream media thinking:
- Aggregation/curation: I'm still waiting for the first big newspaper site to take a serious crack at aggregating all the local news and information it can find, regardless of source, and establishing itself as the expert on all things local. (Hint: Watch the Chicago Tribune to break the mold here in the next few weeks.) It's a logical extension of the local brand, and it's a lot cheaper than putting more reporters on the street.
- Vertical products: One of the most broken things about the newspaper business is the "all things to all people" model. By trying to do a little of everything, newspapers don't really do anything well—for readers or for advertisers. New products that focus on specific, vertical audiences should be the wave of the future, but so far they're barely even a trickle (let's see—there's Gannett's MomsLikeMe franchise, and then...not much else).
- Hyperlocal: Just about everything else you can think of—national news, international news, movie reviews, even sports—is done as well or better on the Web. Which leaves local as the last truly defensible newspaper franchise (at least until some startup figures it out). Newspapers should be reorganizing their staffs around local news and information, aggregating where possible and reaching out to blogs and user-generated content to fill the holes. That can result in a package of unique content that readers can't get anywhere else.
- SEO: Instead of thinking of Google as the enemy, find ways to use it better. Search-engine optimization is standard procedure for successful Web sites, but all but unheard-of among newspaper sites. (Want proof? Search for a big local issue, name or icon, and see if the local newspaper site appears anywhere near the top of the results.) Newspaper sites should be doing everything they can to draw in readers who are searching for information that's all but hidden on their sites.
- New forms of advertising: Banner ads are so...1997. Interstitials, pop-ups and intrusive ads are so...obnoxious. Classifieds are so...dead. Meanwhile, Google is making money off of local search, other non-newspaper companies are pioneering things like click-per-call and pay-per-click, and various startups are perfecting cheap ways to create and sell local ads. Could it be that newspapers are having trouble making online advertising revenue grow because they're selling the wrong kinds of online ads? Hmmm.
- Expanding the advertiser base: Newspapers—including their Web sites—tend to focus on traditional advertising categories like banks, real estate, autos and retail. Quick, name four businesses you don't want anything to do with in this economy. Meanwhile, smaller, non-traditional local advertisers (plumbers, nail salons, cafes, you name it) are trying to figure out how to advertise online. Newspapers need to connect with them, pronto.
- Mobile distribution: Everybody's got a cellphone these days. But most newspaper sites don't reach them. Traffic alerts, headlines, latest scores, etc., are valuable pieces of information that readers want, and that newspapers can deliver via SMS, text or iPhone apps (with advertising and/or sponsorships, no less). But few papers do this well or consistently. In the same category: headlines and alerts via Twitter and RSS. Take these very seriously—don't pay them lip service or outsource them.
That's a start. Newspapers need to be looking for inspiration on additional groundbreaking initiatives from industry-leading innovators like the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Bakersfield Californian, who seem unafraid to try new ways to serve readers and advertisers. I wish there were a lot more leaders to list, but there aren't, unfortunately. (You can find some other ideas here and here.)
There are no magic bullets. But there should be a constant, intensive search for new types of weapons. As long as newspapers are playing defense and falling back on predictable solutions, things are only going to get much bleaker.