What’s Destroying Newspapers?

By , May 28, 2010

Earlier this week, I found myself wondering why my local newspaper’s web site is so awful. Of course, it’s not just my newspaper: the entire print-media publishing industry has been struggling for 15+ years to figure out “the right way” to publish online. Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines are dying.

Daily newspapers were a slowly-sinking industry even before the internet.  Total daily newspaper circulation has dropped a few percent nearly every year for decades.  While internet access to news has certainly accelerated the circulation decline, the worst damage has been to advertising revenue.  Lost revenue led to reduced editorial staffs, which meant less local news reporting, and increased reliance on “wire service” news that is readily available online.

I’ve also noticed that in the race to cut costs, many newspapers are turning their newsstand distribution over to “low-bid” distribution companies, who hire the cheapest workers, who often fail to put new newspapers into many of the newsboxes, and who don’t repair or clean newsboxes that are damaged or are covered with graffiti.  In addition to reducing newsstand circulation, this reduces the opportunity to convert new residents into subscribers.

But then I found an interesting blog post, “How Early Newspaper-to-Web Technology Crippled News Industry’s Thinking” (Amy Gahran, Poynter.com) which cited a longer article “How early online newspaper production tools led the industry down the wrong path” (Robert Niles, Online Journalism Review).

These folks suggest that another “weak link” contributing to newspapers’ internet failures may have been the technology that was initially used to publish newspapers and to migrate newspaper content onto the Web.  The crude technology limited the ways that newspapers could use the internet, and the lack of any definite revenue stream from online publishing discouraged investment or independent thinking.

While newspapers remained mired in the philosophies and limitations embedded in their publishing software, internet newcomers experimented and found more successful ways to capture and distribute information online. While newspapers stuck with the idea that “we report the news, and people read it,” internet newcomers discovered that they could invite active participation by readers.

Whenever I think about the “lost opportunity,” I end up thinking about one of my professors in journalism school who was amazed (in 1981 or 1982) by the promise of computer technology: he suggested that newspapers would soon have the ability to print customized newspapers for individual subscribers (reducing printing and delivery costs, while increasing advertising opportunities).  The technology was there, but the newspaper industry moves very slowly, and that opportunity, too, was lost.

Instead, the sinking newspaper industry is grasping desperately to cut costs (fire the reporters who write what readers want; fire the editors who make sure the words make sense) and find new revenue sources (paste ads on the front page) — and those actions are turning away more readers.

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