Newspapers are having problems, but cutting content isn’t the way to go
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Thu, 01/08/2009 – 11:13am
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
The newspaper industry had a lousy 2008, and usually when you reach that point, you’re thankful for the next year. But 2009 is likely to be worse than 2008.
There is the report from the Atlantic on the perilous financial state of The New York Times.
Closer to our home, the Chicago Tribune didn’t run a Sunday magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times didn’t have a business section on Tuesday. And the Sun-Times union members are being asked to take a 7 percent overall reduction in compensation packages.
And let’s not forget the recent Detroit newspaper decision not to have 7-day delivery, and the Christian Science Monitor going to a Web-only format.
The radio industry and the film industry suffered as a result of television, and while both industries suffered, they were able to reinvent themselves.
But the newspaper industry has a number of problems, above and beyond. Radio and movies didn’t try to reinvent themselves during a worldwide depression, or during a radical adjustment over the effectiveness of advertising.
If you really look at the dynamic of the effectiveness of advertising in the media, you might be seriously appalled. For a long time in radio and television, ratings and advertisers relied on people writing down call letters and shows in a diary. Try being a rating company employee looking at a diary entry where a show and channel are listed and they contradict each other.
And think of the poor advertisers who have to rely on people’s memory for what they listened to or watched during a week. Now radio and television are using more precise instruments of determining listening and watching patterns — devices that pick up on which radio signals are being played, for example.
For newspapers, the archaic standard has been how many copies of a paper are sold. If you run a full-page ad in the sports section of a daily newspaper, it’s assumed that the number of papers sold is how many people will see your ad. But not everyone reads the sports section, or looks through all the front section, or wherever the ad is located.
So newspapers have relied on classified ads and legal ads for revenue. And a lot of those classified ads are drifting to online outlets, such as Craigslist.
But unlike radio and television, there aren’t new technologies to help newspapers be more effective tools for advertisers. Newspapers who complain that they don’t get revenue from online content neglect to mention that they do run banner ads and other online ads. If I ran an industry that relied on advertising, I certainly wouldn’t badmouth the effectiveness of the ads I was running. But newspapers do that all the time with their online ads.
Radio and films didn’t cut back on content to save their industry; they went in a different direction to bring something relevant that their medium could convey. Rock and roll did a lot to save radio, first AM and then FM.
Newspapers have responded to potential changes but cutting back or running more wire service filler, and some papers are even getting rid of the filler. They complain about the lack of space for comic strips, yet they make them so small that if you aren’t reading comics online, you aren’t getting the full experience.
If anything, newspapers should make comics larger, especially if their audience is getting older and has poorer eyesight. Bring something innovative and an experience unique and special to holding newsprint in your hands.
An amazing number of subscriptions depends on the right comic strips or features, ranging from Dear Abby to the column on bridge. But newspapers are cutting what gets them sales. Local coverage suffers with cutbacks, again something that newspapers can uniquely deliver.
It’s difficult to look at what newspapers are doing, since for that industry, we are still in the eye of the storm. Radio made huge mistakes while it was in the eye of its storm. But newspapers have a smaller error margin than radio had in the 1950s and 1960s. And it seems that only recently have they even discovered there was a problem.
In the online world, established newspapers had credibility, something many other online outlets don’t have. And some are better at adapting than others. The Washington Post does a beautiful job with its online chats. The New York Times tried charging for some of its online content, but went about it in an awkward way.
People would be willing to pay for some online content, but it would have to be in a way that made delivery as problem-free as possible. If you look at the complaints newspapers get, often they are delivery problems of the product.
Newspapers will try many different things to save itself. And some of those things will go poorly. But cutting back on content is the biggest mistake newspapers can make. People are reading newspapers less often because they have less relevance in their lives. Cutting back on content only makes the situation worse.
Newspapers have credibility (mostly) and an unique delivery system. They should start thinking about how to make a better product so people will want to buy newspapers. Radio eventually figured it out. It’s newspapers’ turn. Will they rise to the challenge?