Monday, December 15, 2008

The death of newspapers

With the bankruptcy filing of the Tribune company last week I'm hearing a lot of talk about the "death of newspapers" again. The newspaper business has of course been declining for years now, but I think this particular phrase muddies the issue.

In particular, I think we frequently confuse the three things that comprise "the newspaper business":
  • Professional journalism (as opposed, for example, to the largely amateur blogosphere) with a set of fairly widely understood principles regarding objectivity, sources, etc.
  • A business model built around advertising, the two biggest components of which are ads placed by businesses to attract consumers, and consumer-to-consumer ads (the classifieds).
  • A distribution model based on paper, ink, and gasoline.
I think that of these, only the first (professional journalism) is core. It is the only true value that a newspaper company brings to its readers. The advertising-based business model is simply a means to monetize that value, and paper is nothing more than a distribution mechanism. Either of these can (and indeed must!) change for newspapers to survive. But any newspaper company that hopes to survive must recognize that they are not in the "news-paper" business, but rather that they are in the news business.

I suspect that one might argue that I am mistaken, that newspapers are in the advertising business, and one might even go so far as to say that the news is a way of aggregating eyeballs for advertisers. This argument is a valid way to describe how newspapers made money once upon a time, but it is problematic for two reasons.

The first problem is that it puts advertising ahead of news as a core competency. But at the end of the day, newspapers attract readers primarily on the quality of the news (and to a lesser extent the classifieds, which I will come to shortly); they can still be a newspaper if they can monetize the news in alternative ways from advertising, but if they were to jettison the news in favor of other formats to attract eyeballs and advertisers, they would in all but the rarest cases fail because they would be competing with more pure-play advertising platforms and would be in an area outside of their competency.

But the second problem is a larger one: the very reason newspapers were able to make money - particularly in classifieds - is that they were a place of concentrated eyeballs. Once upon a time, huge portions of the population read newspapers regularly, and only had one or two major newspapers from which to choose. Advertising in a newspaper was a sure-fire way to reach a huge population, a one-stop shop. No more. TV and radio, of course, disaggregated a chunk of this a long time ago, but the Internet has disaggregated most of the rest. People get their news from a wide variety of sources, many national. Where people once relied on local broadcasters and local newspapers for all of their news, they now can get much of this from national news providers. This reduces the value to advertisers greatly. And squeezing from the other side are services like Craigslist, which I believe are the biggest threat to the classified advertising model, and which are frankly far more efficient and less expensive than the traditional advertising model.

The net of these trends is that I believe that the traditional advertising model for newspapers is essentially dead, and at the very least cannot support nearly the current number of newspapers. There is a lot of consolidation which must occur, and more companies will need to go out of business.

Ideally, these companies would be able to identify more sustainable business models to support the delivery of news; sadly, this has proven difficult: readers have not been anxious to pay for subscriptions, and few papers have found alternative advertising models that work as well as the old models once did. If I had a brilliant insight for new business models, I'd offer it here. (No, wait - I'd go off and make a mint by implementing it.)

As for the paper-based distribution mechanism, this is simply not core to a newspaper. Some news organizations are reducing or eliminating their print operations in favor of going on-line. My personal prediction is that paper will not go away until there exists low cost, high-resolution durable (i.e., capable of withstanding spilled coffee) screens that people can read at the breakfast table or on the train. (The New York Times on my iPhone actually is starting to come close to this. It's surprisingly legible, well formatted for the screen, and I can read it in all of the traditional newspaper-reading places.) Nevertheless, my point here is that paper and ink are nothing more than a slow and expensive delivery mechanism, and one which will become increasingly irrelevant; nobody should mourn this shrinkage, least of all the smart newspaper companies because printing and delivering all of that paper is a huge expense, and that expense is going down. This actually creates an opportunity to become something that it never really has been previously: a pure-play news delivery business, free to try a wide variety of models for making money. The lowering of capital costs (printing presses, delivery trucks, etc.) should enable many more niche publications to provide more variety of news at lower cost. Yes, it means employing fewer people in the industry as a whole, but there is today a lot of redundancy in this business due to its antiquated models. Just look at a press conference during the presidential race: you'd see dozens of reporters, yet there were not dozens of significantly different stories written.

But none of this means that newspapers as such are dead. Or, more importantly, that professional journalism is dying (another claim I hear all too frequently). It is certainly transforming, and yes, it is also shrinking in the process. But through all of this, I believe that the average person has more professionally reported news available to them now than at any other time in history. That doesn't seem like death to me.

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