Thursday, March 12, 2009

how to save the newspaper stars

This post will be long and boring, and I apologize to my five loyal readers. Please skip ahead, as I don't think this will be entertaining by any stretch of the imagination.

Newspapers are having a rough go of it at the moment. I've just finished reading an article in the New York Times documenting the fall of newspapers across the country. It's a sad state of affairs, and I'm sure many newspaper executives are wondering, "how did it come to this?"

Well, I'm pretty sure that's what they're wondering, because I have a distinct memory of attending a forum in my college days when a newspaper executive told us that, regardless of the threat of online news sources, newspapers were here to stay, and that people just loved newspapers. Well, I thought he was crazy then and I think he's crazier now.

To go back in history for a moment, if I recall correctly, in colonial times people used to get their news through their interactions at taverns. I sort of like this model. If we could start dispensing news in bars, I think people would be much more willing to listen, and even pay absurd amounts of money. For some reason the tavern news distribution model didn't really hold up, and as people stopped socializing in taverns (except, maybe to get the number of the local hottie), newspapers went from broadsheet to broadsheets.

The tavern model has been rediscovered as of late. Small news distributors (bloggers) put out niche content, and people sit around and insult each other while drunk. Have you ever read the comments section of a large blog or column? Priceless.

Which brings me to my (unfunny, many apologies) point of the day: eleven thoughts on the newspaper business, in no particular order, and which ways I thought of on my (freezing) bike ride into school today:

  1. You should provide the day's news for free. If you don't, you get undercut by your rivals. Even if your rivals aren't as good as you, at the margin you'll have to be significantly better to charge a price.
  2. The name of the game these days is basic accounts for free, with premium monthly-subscription services.
  3. The main, first, largest, biggest battle is first getting people to pay you for something. Once you have their payment credentials, they will be six hundred times more willing to spend money on you. Everyone hates getting out their credit card that first time. So, the first payment should be super low, to get over that first barrier--and you can even solicit payment information without needing to charge them (try the PayPal model of hitting their payment solution with a small random charge to "verify" the payment, and you've got them hooked). Look at Apple. Nobody in their right mind would get out a credit card every time to pay for a song, but once they've done it, click click click, and they've spent $2.97.
  4. Your premium subscription services could include blogger accounts, with you hosting a "LA Times Blogs!" section. Maybe that distorts your brand, but you may get people who want to feel like they're publishing meaningful analysis, and can dupe them into paying for having their material hosted on a reputable site. Or people can have their existing blog imported into a certain LA Times page, for example. This makes people feel like news-gatherers, and they get reputable hosting for a small fee. They also get included in LA Times searches, and can gain traffic.
  5. The premium services could also include archives access beyond a certain point. I know you tried that once, so maybe it's a dumb idea.
  6. You could supplement the tavern/blog format by going back to your roots--small published papers. "But wait," you scream, "that's beyond stupid!" Well, maybe so, but hear me out. You allow people to customize their particular paper. Throughout the day, people have certain times when they are not online. Give them a few broadsheets and the ability to customize exactly what articles and sections they see on those broadsheets. Printing these should be no harder in the digital era, and distribution could be with paper carriers (for a price--some people may just want to print their section at home). The best thing is you can target ads much better, based on the content people place on their newspaper.
  7. Worship the user. Stop treating us like fleas. I had a subscription to a paper once. They upped my subscription fees by 40% in one period, and didn't bother alerting me to that fact until my (paid) bill came. Yup, I'll never touch that paper again.
  8. Broaden your content. Make it super easy for people to find all the news they need through you. If they don't find it through you, they find it through their google or yahoo homepage, and you've suddenly just become a commodity that people scrape.
  9. Deepen your content. Link to in-depth articles on certain subjects. Give people the ability to go straight to original sources. You may even be able to charge people with that ability. Most people want the summary, but there's a non-trivial part of the population who wants to read more on a topic. If you don't link to it, or provide them a way, they're going to be heading elsewhere.
  10. I hate to say this one, but socialize yourselves. People want to vote stories or comments up or down, and people want to have reputation systems, so they can feel cool about how they're a Master Joe at stackoverflow.com.
  11. Solicit news stories. Just a simple form: who are you, what's the story, and how do we contact you? You may even make that public, and/or vote-able, so the best/biggest stories rise to the top. Suppose most people want to hear a story on one part of the stimulus bill. Well, the people can submit their requests, vote it up, and voila, you know you have an audience, so you can send a reporter to that politician's office, and hear how disgustingly corrupt they are.

So those are my thoughts of the day to help save the vital newspaper industry. Feel free to comment and add any ideas (or dispute any of mine). It's always a fun thought exercise to make up strategy, especially when you know next to nothing about an industry.

2 comments:

jeremiah said...

The problems facing newspapers are serious. I think the reporting done by newspapers is very important. Some of the issues you bring up are perplexing.

One of the biggest problems is advertising money: it has been going elsewhere recently. Google, for example. The problem there is that Google writes absolutely no news; they prey off the (free) content that others provide.

Another related problem is declining readership. Many people feel they do not need to pay for a newspaper (myself included) when it is all online for free.

You mentioned people being able to choose their own content. But it is equally or more important to have reporters researching stories.

You have also mentioned blogs. Some blogs break stories, but unfortunately many of them are just opinionated commentary on news reported elsewhere.

Newspapers are in a tough spot. The world is changing the way it expects to receive its news and how much it wants to pay for it. I fear that quality of reporting will diminish if the economics do not improve.

drfindley said...

I recommend everyone move to the kindle model. BURN THE PAPERS! *ahem* I mean, we should move to the Amazon Kindle model: where you pay to have the paper delivered to your device in the morning. It's refreshing to be untethered from your computer to read news, but you get what you want and a reasonable price. Blogs, papers, the whole gamut delivered immediately. Saves the newspapers tons on printing costs and keeps them relevant.

Also, I think that only certain amount of the news should be available at the websites. Pay a premium to get to the great content.

I also recommend the following two links:
Can Design save the newpapers?

Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable