How Passion For Newspapers Points To A Way Forward

Earlier this week, while attending a start-up conference at Stanford, I got a chance to chat with Renee Blodgett, a well-known PR and social media figure in Silicon Valley. We got to talking about the future of news, and how her one-time emotional attachment to newspapers had faded over the years.

She pointed me a blog post she wrote a couple weeks ago on the subject, “Who Shot The Paperboy?” Ouch. In it, she recalls the passion she once had for newspapers as a student in London:

“Over time, I began to think of my newspapers in the same way smokers thought of their pack of cigarettes. It was daily routine and without them, the day wouldn’t flow with ease. I became addicted to those papers. They became a part of my identity, they shaped who I evolved into, as well as my political views. They set a standard for the quality of writing, the art of reason and thinking, and everything that goes into a well-crafted story.
I used to sit in coffee bars and watch people waltz past me with newspapers under their arms. If someone didn’t have one, I found myself guessing which one they would read by the way they dressed, the way they walked and the accent they carried. “

It’s a wonderful piece, and I recommend reading it. In response, I posted an extended comment at the end, which I’m re-posting here:

This is a beautiful essay. And you illustrate a few things that I think most people don’t usually understand about newspapers. And these things point to the reason why newspapers, will be around for a long, long time. And that includes in their print form.

Too often, we boil a newspaper down to the idea that it’s just about journalism. In fact, at their peak, a printed newspaper provided about 50 different services to readers, one of which was journalism. Taken together, these things created not just a product, but also an experience. This is where the emotional component kicks in.

It’s similar to the way that Starbucks succeeded originally not just by providing high-quality coffee, but they also coupled that with the cafe experience. The product plus the experience was something that helped people initially develop a passion and emotional attachment in Starbucks’ early days (and something they’ve lost, but that’s another tale).

People are not, in fact, abandoning printed newspapers to the degree that people often think. Last year, worldwide, circulation of printed newspapers increased.

It’s in the U.S. and parts of Western Europe where the problem lays for printed newspapers. But even when the Seattle P-I closed earlier this year, 98 percent of its subscribers immediately signed up for the Seattle Times in print. Passion for print remains deep. I feel this any time we make a slight change to the Mercury News and it prompts a flood of e-mails from readers.

The way you live your life points to the mindset a newsroom needs to adopt to thrive. It needs to become multi-platform. And it needs to shape each platform to the way people embracing that platform want to consume news and information.

You wrote above, “We’ve not only all become authors, but we’ve all become photographers, videographers, headline and copywriters.” But that’s not really true, and I’m sure you weren’t being literal. In fact, consumers continue to exist along a wide spectrum of behaviors, from passionate participants to casual commenters to passive consumers.

The tricky thing is that when it comes to the “people formerly known as the audience,” well, many of them actually still want to just be the audience. They do, in fact, want a gatekeeper, and sensemaker, when it comes to their news. They don’t to have to sift, collect, aggregate, and evaluate because it’s psychologically draining. They don’t want to work to consume their news. Twitter, as a news source, is fine for some, but not for most. They want to be passive receptors. And for these people, print remains a powerful product.

The problem is the newsrooms have been trying to reshape their print product to resemble what people want online: Shorter stories, told quickly. So they’ve moved away from longer storytelling, vibrant writing, and investigative pieces. These are the things that print readers treasure, but are finding less of each year.

At the same time, newsrooms have failed to deliver an online storytelling culture that fits the way people want to consume and participate with news and information on the Web. (And are probably heading toward making the same mistakes on mobile.)

All is not lost, however. Circling back to your post, you again hit on a powerful notion, and one I talk about constantly as I try to re-frame the discussion about the future of news. Pull back the lens, and let’s move away from a discussion about journalism. Let’s ask: What is a newspaper?

At their peak, a newspaper did two things: They created community (as you mention above). And their business was providing the local marketplace for goods and services (the classifieds). The reason they are in trouble today is because they have lost on both of these fronts. Classifieds have evaporated. And as the audience has splintered, the newspaper no longer serves as community hub, creating a shared base of knowledge and conversation.

In both cases, the opportunity remains. The question we, at newspapers, need to ask is NOT: How do we reinvent journalism? Opportunity abounds here. More people read my journalism than ever.

The real questions are: How do create local community on the Web (because geography does still matter)? And how do we reinvent the local marketplace?

Solve those two challenges, and the business will begin to grow in a manner that will support smart, multi-platform newsrooms. These newsrooms won’t be dominant, as they were in the past. They’ll exist as part of local news ecosystem.

But create community, help people succeed in business, and you’ll find a way back to re-igniting the passion for your newsroom.

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7 Responses

  1. @Cynthia, You’ve put into much better words, what I was trying to say. Thank you.Because printers and journalists/academics live in different ‘tribes” some of the new technology and thinking in one have a hard time being heard in the other. After 35 years I am fluent in print and have a conversational knowledge of journalism/academics.In the interests of bringing some of the emerging technology from digital printing on to the radar of journalists/academics and everyone interested in “attracting ‘new audiences’ to the marketplace of ideas.QR codes can be scanned by cell phones and take the user to a website for more information. The disruptive aspect is that a website now means video. That creates the opportunity for the new experience of personal TV. I’ve been exploring how this can play out for replacing textbooks in bottom of the pyramid high schools with “clickable” newspapers. at my ClickablePrint + Printernet Publishing.From a newspaper business point of view, the other ready for prime time technology is the ability to buy versioned print in previously impossibly low quantities. For example 1000 24 page tabloids printed in black only for around $200. Coupled with XML to PDF technology that means marginal cost of design and layout is essentially zero, after the capital expenses. If that is coupled with the idea of using the USPS “If it fits, it ships” new service, that means that cost to deliver a 1000 copies to a high school is negligible.The recent going forward policy of eliminating textbooks in K -12 in California opens the market. While all the talk has been about ereaders, the reality is that it’s too complicated, the risk of damage is too great and the cost of management is too high.Consider the effect of publishing twitter streams from a local newspaper in print, with seamless links to more info on the web and videos at YouTube or Fora.tv or any of the many other video for free websites. Google Talks is just one that is top of my mind. Then consider the possibility of reserving two or three pages for the students to add the content that is typical of a high school newspaper. For a high school, the ads would be limited to public health and government. Outside of a high school, the ads could be limited to local business.The new technology of twitter streams from advertisers takes away the cost of sales for local advertising so that it can be profitably sold at a price a local business is willing to pay.In the same way that a high school newspaper fixes the voice of a high school community, hyper local newspapers can fix the voice of any community of interest.

  2. So I was inspired to write a blog post of my own, but I thought I’d summarize the main thrust of my ramblings here. From your blog post, Blodgett’s excellent piece and the astute comments here, I would conclude that the way news is reported is an expression of identity, and by extension, the newspaper you carry (the cigarette you smoke) is a public declaration of that identity. (“I read the Washington Post. I read the New York Times. I read the New Yorker.”) These statements say something about you. When you remove the physicality of that expression of identity, the individual is left denuded of the “community clothing”–the thing that says, “I rage against the machine” or “I comply with consumer capitalism” or whatever.I guess that leads me to say what I (and many others) have been saying for a little while now, which is that we all need to recognize that in this “marketplace of ideas” (free speech, free expression, news reporting, punditry) we’re figuring out what the “clothing” is that will sell this idea of identity. Which “community/ies” will pay to support the expression of their identity? And what’s the right price? Obviously, for different communities those “products” will be delivered in different ways.I don’t disagree with anybody’s comments about the evolving habits of readers, peoples, democracies and societies. While I’m not sure whether print will (in the long run) be one of the many platforms, I do think text will and that it will serve the news model most effectively as a complement to the other recordable and archivable communication tools (audio and video) and distribution platforms that the people have increased and easy access to.Perhaps all these thoughts lead me to inquire what role will traditional print media play in bridging the news literacy and digital divides that exist in order to attract “new audiences” to the marketplace of ideas?

  3. Ahoy, Chris and old friend Stephen… I was reading Renee’s charming essay too, and was reminded of one of the 1945 New York delivery strike, the first big occasions to learn what American newspapers “were for” in the eyes of their readers… a multifaceted model that was still good and strong when I delivered the Daily Hampshire Gazette around the edges of the Smith College campus when I was 12. (Note beard going from gray to white.) Now I live in an even smaller college town, where the local twice-weekly paper has dropped its price to 25 cents and its reporting staff to ONE, filling its meager pages with city and school press releases. It has let its website collapse. The bigger regional paper doesn’t give any reporter time to get to know the community, and the “alt-weekly” has gone Web-only, looking for non-profit funding. I’ll say more of this over on my reconstituted blog at http://stepno.com/blog (I’ve archived the old one: http://stepno.com/oldblog)

  4. @Stephen @ Chris,Just to get this on people’s radar, I would argue that print that at can produced economically for arbitrarily small groups of communities or interest and connect the real world to the virtual world through QR codes is, in fact, the essential part of the future from a business point of view.It’s a much longer story, which I will save for my blog, but the fundamental fact is that only print and TV are mass market push media. The moving forward development is personal TV on smartphones. QR codes connect Print to TV via smartphones. CodeZ QR and TinyPurls can generate the clickstream data that can produce viewer informatics which are the necessary guidelines for advertising decision makers.At any rate, this post at the Sparksheet is worth a read. http://sparksheet.com/fit-to-print/ The point I’m trying to make is captured in the following: Generally, readership studies have been done very badly in the newspaper industry and the magazine industry as well, because they tend to put a great focus on those people who aren’t reading. One of the biggest problems is that people who actually buy the newspaper, the core customers, don’t read 75 percent of the content.”That’s costing companies an awful lot of paper, a lot of production, a lot of salary. And they need to figure out how to get rid of that stuff and replace it with content that readers are not able to get elsewhere.”What Robert Picard doesn’t mention is that another way “to get rid of the stuff” is to produce versioned newspapers that have 24 pages of exactly what a community of interest wants, and very little of what members of that community of interest don’t want.The value of a print newspaper is to separate the signal form the noise. All of the properties that have been seen as bugs, become features when TV goes personal.

  5. @Michael J: Great analysis of print and debt. Too many folks outside newspapers, I think, don’t understand how much the massive debt structures are making the fundamental problems worse.@Stephen Quinn: You’re exactly right. And I’m not going to argue that print is the future. It’s not. But at the same time, things are not changing nearly as rapidly as many people outside newspapers tend to believe. Habits are evolving. And newsrooms need to radically change, become multi-platform, to make sure they’re optimized to connect with their communities wherever they choose to gets news and information. I do believe print will be one of many platforms, but over time, won’t be the primary one, and shouldn’t be even today.

  6. Thanks for pointing to Who Shot the Paperboy. Great read. What she points to clarifies the real mass value of print. It helps deepen communities by acting as a token of that community. I have to disagree with the idea that news organizations have “to create” communities. A better framing might be that newspaper publishers have to locate and nurture the tribes in defined real world locations. “Communities” are actually collection of tribes in a never ending process of competition, conflict and resolution. The tribes make temporary alliances around a political issue, the inauguration of a president, or the death of a pop star. When tribes form, they want long form print – books, medium form print – newspapers, short form print – posters, it’s as much about the physicality of the medium as it is about the content.In an information scarce communication ecology print had various functions. In an information rich communication ecology those various functions are being disaggregated to stand on their own. My view is that Print works as a tool, a token or a toy. The most powerful going forward value as a token of membership in a group. “people like us read the Financial Times” The most powerful going forward value as a tool is to function as a table of contents for the web. The most powerful going forward value as a toy is the ability to connect Print to personalo video through the mechanism of QR codes and TInyPurls.I think it’s helpfull to separate three issues that obscure instead of clarify the conversation. They are 1. the nature of journalism 2. earning a reasonable margin for the news enterprise 3. the physical paper product.In the case of newspapers going broke, the primary reasons are the same tha explain why Lehman, General Motors and Chrysler went broke. Too much debt to support a business model that grew fat in a non competitive environment. Increasing competition always leads to smaller margins, Like General Motors newspapers had high margins in a non competitive market. They are having a hard time to responding to real competition.With all the noise about “financial meltdowns’ and the “end of print” it’s natural that evolution is seen as extinction. But I like to keep in mind that the latest thinking about dinosaurs is not that they disappeared, but that they evolved into birds. Nothing wrong with being a bird.Just one or two recent developments might give a taste of what I see as the next steps in the upcoming evoltuion. Kodak last week announced that their Prosper system will allow imaging of tabloid pages for .3 cents per page in black and white and 8 cents in color. Although it doesn’t include paper, it seems likely to me that with the competition from Oce and HP (other digital press manufacturers), that publishers will be able to contract with outside printers to have 24 page tabloids printed and delivered for under 20 cents an issue in black ink only, with the marginal cost of color pages appx 10 cents per page.The new thing is that these numbers would hold for 250, 500, 1000, 2000 + issues. That means that a 100,000 circulation news organization could publish 1000 papers each for 100 different “tribes” that are forming and dissolving in any community. To play it out, that means 1000 newspapers purchased, printed and delivered for about $200. With a rules based typography engine there would be essentially no further cost in design and layout.And this is just at the very beginning of new ways to use print to earn some margins to keep the whole thing going..

  7. Hi Chris. I have to disagree with part of what you write. Worldwide circulation of newspapers only grew because of big increases in India, Japan and China — which balanced out the big declines in the US and Europe. Yes, printed newspapers are thriving in countries with low broadband penetration. But newspaper executives in these countries should not be complacent, because demographics and technology will produce rapid change. India represents an example of how profound the change will be. In 1976, when the country’s population was 775 million, one copy of a newspaper appeared for every 80 people. A quarter century later, as the population passed 1 billion, one newspaper was available for every 20 Indians. By mid 2009 India had 68,000 newspapers, with more expected to emerge. They sell for a few cents per edition. Unlike online, print does not require electricity and Internet infrastructure. Power shortages still occur in some parts of India. Last year while I was giving a lecture at a university in Delhi, we had 6 (yes 6!) power cuts in my 90-minute presentation. It was mid morning. So 6 times I had to start up my laptop and projector.Broadband penetration in India in 2008 was a mere 3.7 per cent, and concentrated in major cities. Some pundits have suggested that rising literacy in India will mean an audience for printed newspapers well into this century. In 1976, 35 per cent of Indians could read. By 2008 the figure was 70 per cent. Rising youth literacy, at 82 per cent in 2009, does suggest plenty of potential readers. But those youngsters are more likely to seek their news and information online, just as their counterparts do in other countries.As cheap broadband inevitably becomes available, newspaper circulations will decline. A July 2009 report from Forrester Research estimated that about 2.2 billion people worldwide would be online by 2013 – a global increase of 45 per cent. Almost half of those new users would be in Asia, with 17 per cent in China alone.This year the United States has the most Internet users followed by China, Japan, Brazil, and Germany. Within five years China will be in first place, followed by India, and then the United States, Japan, and Brazil. “Per capita online spending is likely to remain highest in North America, Western Europe and the developed markets of Asia throughout the next five years,” Forrester senior analyst Zia Daniell Wigder said. But shifting online populations and growing spending power among Asian consumers mean that Asian markets will “represent a far greater percentage of the total in 2013 than they do today”.Cheers,

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