A Three-Point Plan to Save U.S. Newspapers

We need to save newspapers. The story has been rapidly developing over the last several years, but it’s truly accelerated in 2009. The fact is newspaper readership had already been on the decline, the attention paid to it going mostly to television. But, of course, digital technology has removed massive numbers of newspaper readers and, with it, massive numbers of newspaper advertisers.

I believe that newspapers — the print editions and the companies that produce them — need to survive. From a cultural perspective, newspapers provide a critical service. No other news outlet is as committed to the fundamentals of journalism as newspapers are, and a consistent flow of unbiased information is critical. From a pure media perspective, newspapers provide a communications heartbeat in a fast-moving world. A newspaper comes out only once a day and the information in there is fixed. It is precisely the opposite of Twitter, and people need the balance between the rapid and the fixed.

Yet Twitter is getting pretty good at delivering the news and we must accept that. Newspaper companies have been painfully, dreadfully slow at realizing the emergence of new technologies. Newspaper companies have sat by and watched tons of new services come by and upend their model: craigslist, Digg, Twitter, and even search in general. A lot of time has passed, but the game isn’t over yet. There’s a strong shift in industry trends, and we’re still in early stages. By committing to join advertisers, journalists, and readers, newspapers can be saved. Here are my three points:

  • Use news to drive traffic, not make money. News — reports about something that has happened — has rapidly become a commodity and can no longer be sold. But that does not mean it’s worthless. Newspapers need to create editorial systems, tools, and processes that are totally focused on putting news items into aggregation systems. That is, when an editor puts something out, it needs to be placed on Twitter and Digg and optimized for search engines. Doing this won’t make any money directly, but it accepts the fact that people want to news within their own networks, not at the newsstand.

  • Massively increase the value and cost of the print edition. Right now, the only people who buy a newspaper really want a newspaper. They like the ritual of reading the print edition and they like the longer-style of the reporting. Unfortunately, newspapers are gutting their papers of precisely what their loyal readers are looking for in an attempt to make the print edition something it isn’t. Stop. Instead, take the content and make it even richer and deeper. Do fewer stories, but do them better and charge at least $3 for it. If you make the print edition premium, it sets up advertisers to more fully engage a very qualified audience.
  • Put everything into a wiki and let others tell the story. Newspapers are in a fantastic position to deeply engage in social media. Right now, most newspapers have added a thin layer of social tools to their existing business. That’s not right. They need to drill into their core and use social tools to recreate their business. In doing so, they will create massively valuable relationships with their readers. My suggestion is to take everything their reporters learn in the process of researching a story (full texts of interviews, photos, notes, rumors, whatever) and put it into a wiki. Then they should allow people access to that wiki (perhaps after a registration), so they can tell their own story based on a common set of facts. To make sure that newspapers can capture this value, they should create spaces on their own sites where people can tell those stories. A reader goes the home page and can read about Obama’s last speech from the professional reporter or from someone in her age bracket or someone who lives near her.

If newspapers are going to survive, they need to become more active players in the changing media economy. I want to be able to use newspapers to both communicate and to advertise products. Right now, they are on the road to ruin and seem insistent on standing firm in their position of selling content and charging for the advertising that surrounds it. The two best solutions they have come up with, so far, are to use micropayments (pay some small amount for each article you read) and to get some kind of charitable contribution from the government (good luck).

They need to shift their thinking and do exactly what the rest of us have done: look at the changes in how consumers want to interact with media and innovate inside that space. I desperately want newspapers to survive, but not just because they should. I want them to survive because they have figured it out.

Meet Gary at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center.

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