Over the past 20 years, we’ve viewed newspapers as “the leading laboratory” of interactive local media. While the funding and execution could always have been greater, newspapers have trotted out project-after-project in hyperlocal, promotions, online video, vertical sites, shopping products, social media and digital agencies.
With the possible exception of the digital agencies, most of these efforts haven’t made much headway. None will return newspapers to a position of local dominance, or help them be especially relevant in the next generation of local marketing. The reality of most of the newspaper industry is akin to the depressing experience of The Independent in the UK, which has seen its single copy print sales fall from 400,000 to 60,000 over the past 20 years, without online revenues even picking up a portion of the losses. While the innovators in the industry will continue to press on, the house is “on fire,” as Jeff Jarvis told attendees at The Mega Conference this week in Austin.
Some think it’s a matter of bringing back the quality of newspapers and letting them shine against the hack-writing of most online outlets. That seems to be working for The Washington Post, which has doubled its journalism core since Jeff Bezos bought it two years ago. The Post, however, has been repositioned online as a national property –one of the few that can qualify as such, along with The New York Times/Wall Street Journal/USA Today and The Guardian. At the local level, newspapers have the chance to produce unique content that is not available anywhere else. But things are looking dire.
Ken Doctor, in his Newsonomics’ post today, suggests the nails in the coffin are the ruthless financiers that have seen an opportunity in the bankrupt industry to suck out exorbitant management fees and merge newspapers together for regional ad clout and new fees. All the while, they are running the titles on empty, with few senior level (i.e. full priced) journalists left. The next recession — perhaps one later this year — will surely knock out the profit margins from the empty vessels and perhaps turn off the lights, once and for all.
If they were ever to be rescued, newspapers “need to think of product development as distinct from the news content itself,” says Doctor. “It is a change in thinking that’s still way too alien to local publishers…..Any company that disrespects its own products, and those who produce them, probably deserves its eventual fate,” he says. Their “financial-driven perspective has led them to believe that it’s mainly cost consolidation — rather than new content-based digital product development — that must be the major strategy of the time,” adds Doctor. “So far, that’s been a losing strategy for readers, journalists, and communities.”