Newspaper Biz: Evolution Isn’t the End of the World

Rob Lee, via Flickr (CC license)
Some ways of approaching what looks like the end of the world are more constructive than others.

(NOTE: I originally wrote this for Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits. I’m cross-posting it here because I think it might also interest Contentious readers.)

This morning I read in the New York Times a cold litany of everything that’s going demonstrably wrong with the newspaper business. (Found it thanks to Jim Romenesko.) It’s a long, depressing, and familiar list: layoffs, buyouts, papers folding, declining revenues, etc.

A couple of things Richard Pérez Peña wrote in that story caught my attention.

First, “Newspaper executives and analysts say that it could take five to 10 years for the industry’s finances to stabilize and that many of the papers that survive will be smaller and will practice less ambitious journalism.”

Yeah, no kidding. Personally, I’d be surprised if many dailies are left standing after the next 7-10 years, if they don’t make fast, fundamental changes to their revenue strategies. (I touched on this theme yesterday.) I realize this is dire news to people who can’t envision doing anything but working for a traditional newspaper. But on the bright side, for those with flexibility and a bit of business savvy, I think that right now there is more space than ever in the news market for entrepreneurial journalistic ventures.

Why my optimism?…

Pérez Peña also wrote: “The paradox is that more people than ever read newspapers, now that some major papers have several times as many readers online as in print. And papers sell more ads than ever, when online ads are included.”

Here’s how I see it: News providers, ad networks, search engines, and advertisers all function together in what I like to think of as “the relevance industry.” I think this industry needs better infrastructure, collaboration, and mutual understanding and respect in order to fully develop and thrive.

I suspect the first step to make it all work is by news orgs finally figuring out how to constructively partner with online ad networks to deliver greater relevance at a more granular level. Also, we need to enhance systems and strategies for selling and placing locally relevant ads online, via mobile content, and even in print.

These measures could keep the money rolling in, to support a diverse array of quality journalism that would in turn engage diverse communities on many levels. Right now, most online ads presented by news orgs are poorly priced and sold — and shockingly lacking in relevance.

Established news brands (like major dailies) may have a major advantage in persuading ad networks to collaborate and innovate — should they choose to stop squandering it. So far, the more sophisticated, specialized, lucrative ad networks have been pursuing the low hanging fruit. News orgs, thanks to institutional inertia and byzantine ad systems, have not looked very tasty in that context. That can be fixed.

But if the major news orgs fail to adapt, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to be a big company in order to be a good business — especially as the era and appeal of mass media wane. Smaller, more numerous, entrepreneurial ventures with less overhead and inertia could be the future of journalism.

This could be implicit in what blogger Dan Kennedy wrote today in his critique of the NYT article: “I think [Pérez Peña] is …wrong that news sites (let’s not call them newspapers) will be less ambitious. Perhaps by ‘less ambitious’ he means more focused on local news. That’s true. …But that’s not less ambitious — it’s just different.”

(By the way, I found Kennedy’s post via the Wired Journalists community, which I mentioned earlier.)

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