The Great Newspaper Debate
It’s not breaking news that the newspaper industry is in dire shape. The whole issue is actually quite exhausted at this point; hours of broadcast news has been spent analyzing it, miles of newsprint has been dedicated to solving it, pages and pages of web space have been created to forecast the day newspapers will finally call it quits, and still after all the time, money and energy spent talking and talking and talking about it, no one has a sure-fire solution. It’s been years of public brainstorming and still nothing.
(And ironically, this article is about to do the same. My apologies).
There are a host of theories on how to save publishing: a micro-payment system, paying for online subscriptions, the list goes on. But no one knows the right answer. And now, add to the discussion even more players, new developments and the continual trailblazing of technology – there’s a whole lot of loud, chaotic chatter without any one voice rising soundly above the rest.
And while the newspapers have been hiding in a corner, biting their nails and awaiting their inevitable end, technology has picked up the pace, bloggers have doubled in number and social media has taken over the world.
Yes, news organizations have added their own in-house blogs, created Twitter accounts and have streaming online content to keep them in the loop with today’s consumer, but they’re still failing to generate revenue, and we all know that money makes the world go ‘round.
It seems that the news industry is allowing itself to go down without a fight, succumbing to the changing times without shifting towards innovation, reminiscing on the golden days of journalism instead of figuring out its future.
Well…maybe not just yet.
Last month, Rupert Murdoch announced that two of his publications, The Times and The Sunday Times of London, will begin charging readers to access each paper’s online content beginning in June. New websites for each publication will be rolling out in May, and the new sites will charge £1 (about $1.50) for a day’s access or £2 for a weekly subscription.
Murdoch has already used this system with The Wall Street Journal successfully, and other news leaders like The Financial Times and Newsday have similar paywall web-access systems that have helped them keep their head above water. The New York Times has also announced a plan to launch a paywall system in the near future.
So is this the light at the end of the tunnel?
Possibly, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of leaked news flooding the blogosphere at the same death-defying rate it does already. Or the dilemma of why people would sign on to pay for things they can get for free?
It’s one thing if you’re a content-focused paper like The Financial Times or WSJ – you play an equal influential role with CEO’s, CFO’s and COO’s – tracking, instigating and analyzing the ebb and flow of business. These papers have a market that will pay. The New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post – the big papers – they also have enough of a die-hard audience base to stay alive even if their lungs collapsed and they’ve signed a DNR. It’s the little guys that are taking the biggest hits – the local papers, the small city dailies, the niche publications. And for them, no one has a viable answer.
So what about micro-payments? It works for iTunes, couldn’t it work for news? These Pay-Pal-like systems definitely appeal to today’s mile-a-minute consumer who doesn’t want to commit to any long-term subscriptions, and will more likely swallow a $0.99-pricetag for high-quality information.
But just how many articles would newspapers have to sell to make a viable profit? Would all articles, regardless of length or subject matter, be evenly priced? Will advertisers still sign on if they can’t be guaranteed the same visibility as before? These questions seem to complicate a solution that’s supposed to simplify…
Then, in walks the iPad and even more questions, hopes, assumptions and skepticism arise. It was the focus of a piece I wrote a couple months ago, when there was major buzz that Apple’s iPad was going to be the news industry’s knight in shining armor, save it from the perils of the cruel digital world by sweeping it off its feet and carrying it into the sunset to be forever a newspaper…just without the paper…on a screen…owned in part by Apple.
Now tech and media analysts are coming to their senses, waking up from the drooling, dream-like state everyone seemed to be in when a shiny, new iPad was dangling in front of them. They’re going back on their initial judgments, and instead, saying that no, this magic machine will not save the news industry, or journalism for that matter.
Here’s why: all the money saved from shipping and printing costs (about 30 to 40 cents per copy) will just shift to pay the digital provider. On top of that, there will be a dramatic decline in revenue from readers, as an average weekly subscription of $12 will probably halve or more when readers have the option to buy cheaper apps or pay-per-view.
So it seems we’re back to the old drawing board once again. The release of the iPad gave us a tingle of hope, but when it comes down to it, a machine isn’t going to save an industry so deeply rooted in our culture, one that holds an extraordinary amount of power and influence and has a deep impact in everyone’s lives every single day.
So I guess the major issue of this painfully long and grueling debate comes down to a question: just how much are we willing to pay to keep “the news” alive?
Is the need of an actual newspaper over just like the need for milkmen and traveling salesmen? Are the consumers that love to get that pile of inky, dingy newsprint every morning going to outweigh the want-it-easy-want-it-now News 2.0 consumers?
Staying true to the theme of this article and the discussion in general, I obviously don’t have an answer. But I will leave you with this telling little news experiment happening at Penn State University:
A rookie campus blog run by only a few students is rivaling the school’s award-winning, 112-year-old official campus paper The Daily Collegian. The unofficial blog, Onward State, is leveraging the power of social media platforms like Twitter and Google Wave to make its news relevant, accessible, pared-down and real-time. These short bursts of essential information are striking a chord with students, and the blog is competing with the school paper in a big way. So much so that the official school paper is adopting some of Onward State’s new media techniques and integrating more digital aspects into the way it delivers news.
So is a complete overhaul of the way news is delivered now in order? In terms of making news appealing for the next generation, I think definitely yes. But today in the here and now, as old and new media come head-to-head in an increasingly aggressive and divergent way, the newspaper industry better choose a path and choose it fast or risk the chance of becoming a relic of history.
On the bright side, there’s already a museum built.