Sunday, September 6, 2009

I'm not getting newspapers

Plenty has been written about the imminent demise of the printed news. A lot of it is unsubstantiated guff and terror, but there's no arguing the pickle they find themselves in. As the next generation will find precious little reason to ever buy a title, most of them face a certain decline of readership with an ever greyer demographic slant. Hardly headline news. Everyone's got a prediction and nobody's got a concrete plan. Market contraction, free content distribution and a slew of other issues need to be tackled, but essentially nobody knows how to make the online model pay the same way as the real, manufactured product used to.

Peter Merholz, writing in Harvard Business, put it very simply, and I find it hard to argue with the logic.
If you don't work in mass media, you might be forgiven if you think that you — the reader, the watcher, the audience member — are the customer. When you work in mass media, you know that readers, watchers, and audience members are really the products, being served up to mass media's actual customers, the advertisers. So for decades, improving the "customer experience" meant doing what's best for advertisers, whether or not it was best for the audience. And so you get sites like the Bakersfield Californian, with giant banner ads dwarfing the social media content. If there were no Craigslist, the audience would put up with it. But there is a Craigslist. And on Craigslist, you really are the customer. Even with its shortcomings, the site has only one audience in mind. And so customers click away from the confused businesses, and direct their attention to those who endeavor to serve them.

The awful Craigslist is awfully successful because it is only what the customer wants. Like the utterly mundane Google homepage, it is selling shovels, not gold. Let's not be entirely naive. Every newspaper in Ireland is now sponsored jointly by Tesco, Dunnes Stores, SuperValu and the other retailers. Full page colour ads for cheap chicken are the dog, and editorial is the tail.

Time to wake up. When customers can increasingly turn to informed peer-to-peer online publications (and add to the content themselves) or when they can see from Amazon and TripAdvisor just what the hoi polloi thinks of whatever or wherever it is they have a mind to buy or go (and then themselves rate it) then the newspapers have to take seriously the issue of what they're chasing first, advertisers or readers.

Online readers and offline readers are touching tangentially now, but soon they will part forever imo. The latest college grads will not have a default buy-the-print-version setting. And 'innovations' like making your digital publication look exactly like your offline version are an utter waste of money and time that could be spent figuring out how to make your premium content, your opinion sections, your decent writers, that bit more exclusive (ie billable) without ignoring the fact that anyone, anywhere can get the rest of the news for free at any time.

Publishing and printing are in the front line of Changing Times, and the recession has less to do with it than the advances of electronic media. Henry Ford's idea that if he'd asked the people what they wanted, they'd have demanded a faster horse is now bunkum. The people know exactly what they want, but they don't want to wade through flashing, distracting, epilepsy-inducing and downright annoying ad content to get to it. There is only one Commandment: thou shalt engage. If your advertisers' content doesn't do that, Madam Editor, it will diminish them - and by association your online publication - in the eyes of the end users.


  1. Good post and great points.

    This point- that a newspapers fundamental aim is to sell an audience to advertisers (and content is shaped accordingly) - sadly eludes most people and is a point worth repeating.

    It is a point that forms the core of Noam Chomsky's argument in The Propaganda Model - and subsequent articles by the way...........

    Interestingly there have been many examples in recent years of journalists and columnists being censored, rebuked, threatened and indeed fired for offending lucrative advertisers.

    This is a threat to democracy and to the much vaunted freedom of the press.

  2. Freedom of the press may be secured using different tools these days, Will.

  3. That's a moot point Nick........I used to cheerlead the death of print and champion the plethora of digital alternatives.

    Now I am not so sure.

    David Simon for one (creator of the Wire) makes an eloquent case........

    "The internet is a marvelous tool, and clearly it is the information delivery system of our future.
    But thus far, it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from aggregators and abandon its point of origin, namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host. "

  4. Gawd< I just finished Micheal Connelly's latest "The Scarecrow" (IT Tech Wizard as Serial Killer - I get it) and he illustrates exactly this point.

    Also, did you hear Eamon Dunphy on lunchtime with Eamon Keane today? I found myself agreeing with him, how FAS as a major advertiser got away with it for so long. And now O'Donaghue Newstalk have been talking about this for 2 months and there is was in print cold off the presses and hidden in the business pages.

    Maybe they should downsize the format and re-up the journalism. Make it worthwhile to read a folded up paper on the loo again...

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