Newspapers Fight For Survival in the Digital World

tom_honig_sAs poor old newspapers struggle to keep their relevance in an increasingly digital world, I’m reminded of author Jon Katz and his description of online newspapers: they’re like watching Lawrence Welk breakdancing.”

Which reminds of a debate I once saw at a meeting of California editors. On one side was Tom Selleck, who was trying to convince editors to adopt a written code of ethics. On the other side was a team of fat, bald editors who might have won the debate—but they didn’t, because they looked tired, old and far less convincing than the tanned movie star sitting with them on the stage.

It was then I realized that if newspapers are ever going to succeed, they’re going to have to look outside their own circle. It won’t be newspapermen (top management is mostly male) who will save the day.

The latest to weigh in on how to save newspapers is—gasp!— an advertising guy. Writing in the magazine Advertising Age, Optimedia Chief Executive Officer Antony Young challenges conventional wisdom. His most dramatic point? Buy iPads for your readership.

Now that’s something that would make sense, even if it would add to Apple’s bottom line. He says: “Give away 100 million iPads. … Make tablets ubiquitous in schools, fast-food restaurants, bus stops, trains, planes, libraries. Get America reading again.”

The iPod changed the music industry. Now, the iPad just might change the news and information business. It’s a true blend of media—words, video, photos—in an easy-to-use, transportable product.

Most news executives I’ve ever met would be apoplectic over the idea giving away iPads for free. Yet those same execs have no problem pouring huge dollars into things like a printing press, delivery vehicles and salaries to people to distribute the newspaper.

That brings up Young’s next great point: hire people from outside the industry. Of course, that strategy has failed. The Los Angeles Times almost ruined itself when it hired Mark Willes from the Cheerios division of General Mills to be its publisher. He soon picked up the nickname “The Cereal Killer” and started essentially selling off news space to advertisers.

That’s not the kind of outsider that Young is talking about—and he’s the ad guy. “For the media world, many of the entrepreneurs inventing your future are in Silicon Valley or on some school campus. Track them down, buy them and build from there.”

But here’s Young’s most controversial comment that’s going to challenge newspaper executives: “Breaking news is overrated.” That takes execs outside their comfort zone. Look on virtually any website and you’ll see that breaking news and opinion rank at the top of any “most viewed” list.

Breaking news is perishable and, Young says, Twitter probably beat the newspaper to it anyway.

Says Young: “Exclusive, penetrating, well-researched stories have value. … I envision fewer Paris Hilton stories and more print equivalents to 60 Minutes and HBO-style content.”

Indeed, take a look at this very newspaper you’re holding. In recent weeks, Good Times has featured in-depth stories on important local issues like redevelopment, transportation and the La Bahia hotel renovation project.

The big question facing newspapers of the future is whether they can continue to make their money off only advertising. For many years, newspapers have tried to convince younger people to pick up the paper—but with little success. When young people are questioned, the response is nearly always the same: “I get my news online.”

The problem is that online advertising goes elsewhere. People read news sites, but they advertise elsewhere.

The New York Times is embarking on a new concept in which readers can access up to 20 stories for free and then they’ll ask you to pay. Already, hackers and other online experts have figured out a way to work around it.

So far, the only newspapers who have been able to sustain a paying model are financial publications like The Wall Street Journal. So far, no general interest newspaper has been able to convince readers to pay. There’s just too much information for free online.

It’s hard to imagine much of a future for the daily newspaper. Online newspapers are truly artistic successes, but layoffs and cutbacks continue as advertisers find other means of sending out their message.

But I do like the idea of an iPad giveaway.

Tom Honig is a longtime Santa Cruz journalist. His new online newsletter, the Santa Cruz Observer, is available at tomhonig.com. Contact him at [email protected]

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