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Friday, September 23, 2005

US: the present state and possible future of the newspaper industry put in perspective

Already being branded "Black Tuesday," September 20, 2005 may be looked back on as the day that the newspaper industry realized that all of the pessimistic predictions of their imminent demise were not merely hype. On that day, four major East Coast metro papers (New York Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News) announced that they would need to layoff or buyout a combined total of 180 newsroom staff members (see former posting). The previous week, a West Coast metro (San Francisco Chronicle) began buying out and laying off 120 employees. And over the next few weeks, the forecast doesn't get any better.


Bob Cauthorn at Rebuilding Media predicts that in October, with the publication of the "Publishers Circulation Statement," "metro newspapers across the country will post astonishing year-over-year declines." In an excellent article, Cauthorn first expects circulation of major metro papers to be between 9% and 15% and the average American newspaper circulation dive to be between 3% and 5%. But the core of the piece is two things newspapers are doing wrong that is bringing about their present difficulties: 1. talking about platform shift and 2. focusing on their brand.

1. Cauthorn says platform shift, switching from print to web, is a phrase that newspaper execs use to make themselves feel like they're changing their product. In reality they may be moving their content online but they don't change it. They don't realize that the different platform provides different opportunities that their readers want them to take advantage of. So printing the same content in the paper and online is ultimately self-defeating.

2. In a similar way, companies focusing on their brand are just making up an excuse for not creating anything new. The quality of their product may be suffering, but they're sure that people will continue to buy their product because it has a trusted brand name. But "When it comes to a war between products and brands, products almost always win in the end." Thus, newspapers need to become innovative, molding their product to fit the web and more importantly, the desires of their readers.

Media expert Steve Yelvington echoes Cauthorn's call. Referring to the massive job cuts, he writes, "Every newspaper journalist in America should consider this a wake-up call. You can't continue to put out yesterday's newspaper in today's world. You can't continue to go through the motions of journalism without the heart. You can't pretend that the Internet is somebody else's problem. Change, or die... Create a product that demands to be read."

Staci Kramer at PaidContent rides Viacom CEO Tom Frestonslightly for constantly reverting back to the "multi-platform" excuse; television, film, and digital interaction. In an interview, Freston described his company's new strategy as exactly what has been rejected by the above pundits; "...We have what we call the multi-platform strategy where the brand is at the center. There's not a lot of audience overlap between a lot of these brands. You come into each brand separately and under each brand there will be different types of functionality."

Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine contributes to the argument, refuting Freston's comments and agreeing with Cauthorn, but adding another dimension. Elaborating on a very well received posting he wrote in August about the problem newspapers are causing themselves by trying to control content instead of "enabling (the) sharing" of content among readers, Jarvis says "You don't want to be multiplatform. You want to be unplatform." He asks,

"So what if you help people create and distribute? What if you provide content to remix and some of the tools and know-now to do it? What if you share promotion and, yes, ad revenue? What if you don?t try to own 100 pieces of content but recognize your value in contributing to the success of 10,000 pieces? What?s your real value then? Owning? Or enabling? Restrictions? Or reputation?"

An example that may be the start of the media future these pundits envision is Korea's OhmyNews. Combining, 37,000 citizen journalists to date with a professional staff, the site considers that "Every citizen is a reporter" and that most everything is news. Dr. Oh's project turned a small profit last year and is predicted to fare even better this year, nothing even close to what Wall Street demands, but it's a start. iTalkNews (see previous posting) is a similar American site that combines Associated Press articles with reader contributions. In its short existence, it already claims over a thousand contributors.

In further observations, Cyberjournalist has posted a Nielsen/Net Ratings report that found that in 9 of 10 major local markets, Internet readers stick to their local paper's site with the Washington Post leading the pack being read by 30.1% of the Beltway Internet user population. This shows that locally, "brand" still pulls some weight. But with local CJ sites popping up all over the place, some regional newspapers adopting CJ practices such as the famous Greensboro News & Record example, and the fact that Internet users can access any publication, in fact any Internet page from anywhere in the world, from the comfort of their home, "brands" will probably lose their influence.

Sources: Rebuilding Media, Yelvington.com, PaidContent, Buzzmachine (here and here)

Ps. With all of the job cuts at metro newspapers, it is likely that news agencies will become even more important and may someday be the only sources relied on for international news. One of the repercussions of layoffs at the Philadelphia Inquirer according to the American Journalism Review is that it had to close its Rome bureau which leaves the number of its international bureaus at 1, 3 less than in the 90s. James J. Cramer at the financial website The Street speculates "...with cost cuts already in place to the point where you might just as well run Associated Press copy throughout if you make more job eliminations... a bleaker situation looks, alas, even more bleak than I thought."

Posted by john burke on September 23, 2005 at 11:52 AM in a. Citizen journalism, c. Multimedia convergence, k. Circulation and newspaper launches, n. Online strategies | Permalink

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