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Newspapers: Stop Whining and Act

  |  July 10, 2009   |  Comments

The Web is here to stay. Newspapers need to stop feeling sorry for themselves and change their business models.

As they say in Las Vegas, if you don't like the game, don't play. Don't start complaining about the rules of a game that you started playing long ago.

I phrase it that way because dozens of whines I've read this summer from people who work at newspapers, magazines, or broadcast stations or networks stem from the editor of the "Las Vegas Review-Journal." He quotes U.S. 7th Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner's speculation that as people shift their reading habits from print to online, perhaps linking to newspaper Web sites should be banned to protect the newspaper industry's viability:

    A newspaper with shrinking revenues can shrink its costs only by reducing the number of reporters, columnists, and editors, and when it does that quality falls, and therefore demand, and falling demand means falling revenues and therefore increased pressure to economize -- by cutting the journalist staff some more. This vicious cycle, amplified by the economic downturn, may continue until very little of the newspaper industry is left.

The "Review-Journal" editor whined, "Someone does need to find a way to start lynching the rustlers of intellectual property, or we will see it slowly erode and disappear."

He quoted "Cleveland Plain Dealer" columnist Connie Schultz's recent whine that "parasitic aggregators reprint or rewrite newspaper stories, making the originator redundant and drawing ad revenue away from newspapers at rates the publishers can't match. The inevitable consequence: diminished revenue and staff cuts."

I can't help but laugh and shake my head at such whining. I've spent more than 30 years in the newspaper industry, the past 15 years helping it adapt to more efficient media technologies and business models. A dozen years ago this summer, I visited the "Review-Journal," the "Plain Dealer," and dozens of other daily newspapers, as a consultant to the U.S. newspaper industry's New Century Network (NCN) online endeavor. In the days before Google News and craigslist, NCN was a consortium of almost all U.S. daily newspaper companies, either as full or associate members, and its aim was to utilize the Web fully and profitably.

So why do I laugh when many of those company's executives now whine about search engines and linking "rustling" their readership or revenues or otherwise causing their print editions to fail?

  • More than 10 years ago, those companies began putting their content on the Web intentionally so people and search engines could link to it and aggregate it. That was their stated purpose for doing so. They all knew that was the Web's purpose. So why should they now whine because people and search engines are doing just that?

  • During the NCN endeavor, the major newspaper publishing companies in the U.S. tried to create their own news search engine. They recognized there was a consumer need for one. Yet those companies were too used to competing against one another, so their internal squabbling and competitions caused that project -- and the entire NCN endeavor -- to fail. (Business Week reported this well.) This failure opened the door for someone else to do succeed, and four years later Google News was launched. The U.S. newspaper industry had its unfettered chance to do what Google News later did, blew it with petty quarrels, and now complains because Google picked up the ball and scored.

  • The same is true when publishers complain about craigslist "unfairly" siphoning their classified advertising business. But before craigslist existed, newspapers could have easily implemented the new business model for classified advertising that Craig Newmark later pioneered. That model was a more efficient business model for the consumers and not the newspapers, so those publications willingly chose not to adopt it -- mistakenly thinking that if they didn't adopt it no one else ever would.

Here, then, is my professional advice to whining executives at newspapers, news magazines, and broadcast stations and networks:

  • If your company doesn't want people or search engines to link to your content, take your content offline. Likewise, if you think your business plans to use an online medium designed for content linking and aggregation isn't benefiting you, shut down your Web site. Otherwise, don't whine about others linking to or aggregating your content. Remember: you wanted them to do those things when you put your content online.

  • If you're a publisher who thinks your Web site is reducing your printed editions' revenues, readership, or circulation, take down your site. If you're a broadcaster who thinks your Web site is shrinking your programs' listenership or viewership, stop broadcasting online.

  • If you think the problem is that you're giving away your content for free online, then start charging readers to view your content on the site.

You'll be stupid to do any of those three things, but at least you won't be a whiner.

If you don't want to be stupid or a whiner, stop clinging to outdated business models. Stop clamoring for protection, subsidies, or tax sheltering. Instead, study and follow how publishers and broadcasters in Europe and Asia, and even in North America, have utilized the Web quite profitably. Better yet, study how the companies you've been whining about have readily adopted the new and more efficient business models, have captured consumer markets, and are reaping handsome profits. Some of your companies still might have time to adapt.

Stop whining and act.

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Vin Crosbie

As managing partner of Digital Deliverance LLC and publisher of the "Digital Deliverance" newsletter, Vin Crosbie advises news media worldwide about new media strategies and tactics. As adjunct professor of visual and interactive communications and senior consultant for executive education in new media at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he teaches that wisdom to graduate students and media company executives. "Folio" magazine called him "the Practical Futurist." "Editor & Publisher" magazine devoted the overview chapter of its executive research report "Digital Delivery of News: A How-to Guide for Publishers" to his work. And his speech about new media to the National Association of Broadcasters annual conference was one of 24 orations (including some by President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama) selected by a team of speech professors for publication in the reference book, ">Representative American Speeches 2004-2005."

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