The Future of Newspapers

If you read Time Magazine, you probably read it online. I don’t typically read it — but last week was different. The cover story caught my attention. “How to Save Your Newspaper.” The article focuses squarely on the slow yet feverish downfall of the New York Times, and basically can be boiled down one line: Newspapers should really charge for their content.

The author, Walter Issacson, is a veteran of the pen-and-ink publishing world. He lays out his arguments in painstaking detail, even making reference to Bill Gates and drawing an analogy to software development (the free LAMP stack be damned). In the online version, Mr. Issacson spends three digital pages arguing why newspapers should charge for their content, yet does not offer ways how to effectively charge until the fourth and final page – and even then, he offers only micropayments as an option. But do not take these criticisms as an indictment of Mr. Issacscon’s article; it is a great and necessary read for anyone interested in the future of journalism. And to Time’s credit, the article immediately following Mr. Issacson’s speaks highly of e-readers and the revenue opportunities the Kindle and the like provide to publishers.

For Time Magazine, the death of newspapers is a harbringer of their own demise. The New York Times is “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” while Time is, at its core, all the news that’s fit to put on shiny paper once a week. As the Times goes, so goes Time. The questions shuffling through their offices, and the offices at the Grey Lady, are voluminous and difficult: How do maintain subscription and newsstand revenue when news and analysis is ubiquitous at the click of a mouse? How do we ensure advertising revenue when Google and Craigslist offer a better value proposition? What happens if our online ad revenue rates crater? One can hear the panic behind every answer.

There are no answers to those questions – at least not answers which publishers wish to hear. That’s the bad news. The good news:

Time, the Times, and all the rest are simply asking the wrong questions.

The questions they should be asking is much more fundamental: Why did their business model – newsstand sales, subscriptions, and advertising, to use Mr. Issacson’s word choice – work? Why did it stop working? And how do we go back?

Paper, Not Content

I read the Time article – in print – at a relative’s house. The subscribers are thirty years my elder and also subscribe, naturally, to the Times. At one point during the visit, the homeowner sat down with the Sunday Times and said, “Let’s see what’s happening in the world.” It is to that mindset which the Times and other general news media cater.

The Times’ goal is to package together as much news as possible to provide a horizontally-broad look into the world in which we live. Take Tuesday’s Times, and one sees an article about President Obama’s first prime-time press conference, elections in Iraq, A-Rod’s steroid admission, a tool-and-dye company’s economic struggles, Secretary Geithner’s influence on bailout provisions, and a smattering of Catholics who are reviving plenary indulgences. To give a count, that is: politics, both domestic and foreign; sports; religion; and a slice-of-life story from middle America – all on page A1.

As recently as 15 years ago, newsprint was the best option to meet this goal of answering, “What’s new in the world?” At the time, one’s options were limited – print, radio, and television. And print delivers the news in a manner unmatched by the other two mediums – the power of text over audio/visual sources.

First, the consumption is entirely asynchronous from its publication and exceptionally portable. If one has his television on one station, he misses the content served on the other seven hundred, DVRs notwithstanding. But reading a front-page article in the Times does not preclude you from reading the sixth page of the Style section, or anything else for that matter. And you can read it virtually anywhere save for the driver’s seat of a car.

Reading a newspaper also imposes virtually no distractions upon others, nor withdraws the reader from the conversations around him. One can quietly consume news and other information without subjecting the others in the room to the “noise” of the television or radio. Similarly, the consumer need not “go watch TV in the other room” or use a Walkman (remember those?) in order to stay part of the conversation around them.

But most of all, newspapers such as the Times allowed readers to tailor the product to their own needs and interests. The Times covers a multitude of topics, covering local, national, and international news; business; tech; style; entertainment; sports; automobiles; real estate; and a bevy of other topics. There is even a crossword puzzle. Only a few years ago, the Times ran a television ad aiming to increase subscribers – the focal pitch point was that there’s something for everyone. The ad even featured a young couple who discussed how sharing the Sunday Times is the highlight of their weekend – she reads some sections, he the others, and then they do the crossword together [!].

For many – truly, the majority of the population – newspapers were a staple of life, and for good reasons. But most of those reasons are centered not on the qualities of the content, but on the quality of the medium itself. Newspapers are convenient, portable, and do not require that one remove himself from the conversation nor impose one’s taste on others. Only one of the advantages that newspapers have over the CNNs or news radios of the world relates to the content: that wide, horizontal swath covered means that there is something for everyone all wrapped up in that two-dollar bundle of paper-and-ink goodness.

So: what broke?

The obvious answer is “along came the Web,” but that is incomplete. The Web’s mere presence removes the newspaper’s inherent advantages in convenience and self-contained consumption. And as this recent photo by Joi Ito demonstrates, the increasing proliferation of small, Web-enabled devices makes reading on the Web arguably more convenient than reading the same text in print.

But again, that is only half the problem. Newspapers need to do more than simply move their content onto the web.

Realize that the Medium Matters

The big fault-line in newspapers business models is their insistence in being everything to everyone; again, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Before the advent of the Web, this made sense, as newspapers and their news magazine brethren were the best way to deliver an omnibus news source. But the Web destroyed that model.

With a seemingly boundless quantity of information at one’s fingertips, the Web allows anyone, anywhere to find deep information on virtually any topic. If you are interested in President Obama’s first prime-time press conference, Google News provides literally thousands of potential matches. Sports blogs were abuzz with chatter about Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use. A smattering of political sites – blogs, independent sites, newspapers, and magazines – covers everything in Iraq in painstaking detail. News and analysis on every topic is out there in hordes, and often, for free.

Yet defenders of the newspaper industry object. “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”, says Mr. Issacson, quoting the inimitable Bill Gates. The quality of newspaper journalism, argues Mr. Issacson et al, is likely to be superior than what one will produce for free, and basic economic sense demands that people pay for it:

When I used to go fishing in the bayous of Louisiana as a boy, my friend Thomas would sometimes steal ice from those machines outside gas stations. He had the theory that ice should be free. We didn’t reflect much on who would make the ice if it were free, but fortunately we grew out of that phase. Likewise, those who believe that all content should be free should reflect on who will open bureaus in Baghdad or be able to fly off as freelancers to report in Rwanda under such a system.

For those of us who believe everything on the web should flow free-as-in-beer, it is hard to stomach this simple truth: He is right. At the end of the day, some of the best content will be produced at significant cost, and that cost will be borne in part by the consumers of the content.

Where Mr. Issacson errs is immediately afterward. “Charging for content forces discipline on journalists,” argues Mr. Issacson. “[T]hey must produce things that people actually value.” The error: Journalists are already producing things that people already value. The fault of the current problems lies squarely at the feet of publishers.

Publishers at the New York Times and, for that matter, most every newspaper in a sizeable U.S. market, appear hell-bent on being the news product for everyone, regardless of interest or background. And to make matters worse, these publishers are similarly wed to the form of journalism borned out of the nuances of the newspaper industry: text-only offerings, word counts suited for broadsheet columns, adherence to a certain style guide, etc. This should not be surprising, as that style of content is what the Times and others are producing as part of their core newspaper business – “repurposing” the content by simply putting it on the Web is both easy and no real threat, itself, to their previously profitable and stable business.

But now, the threat to that core is coming from outside sources, and in full force. That much is obvious – just ask the journalists at the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Times, or other newspapers on the brink of extinction. It was not the online versions of these papers which did in the business, but rather the confluence of web content – blogs, independent sites, Google News, etc., and alternative advertising venues such as Craigslist and AdSense.

Yet not all content plays are suffering; indeed, the macro-economic landscape aside, some are thriving. Just over a year ago, my friend Mike Shatzkin articulated how those companies made a strategic decision, allowing them to adapt, survive, and yes, advance:

Consumer media in the 20th century tended to be horizontal and format-specific. The New York Times and Random House define “horizontal”: they publish across all interests and markets. The Internet will drive 21st-century publishing enterprises to be more like what professional publishing has always been: highly vertical and format-agnostic.

Vertical content sources have expertise in that vertical – something the Times does not. For tech coverage, one would typically trust a writer at ReadWriteWeb over a tech beat writer at the Times, if for no other reason that the blogs require less pure journalistic skill while the Times requires less industry knowledge. The same can be said for other verticals: we prefer ESPN for sports, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes for business, Engadget and Gizmodo for gadgets, etc. These verticals are crowding out the currently horizontal Times.

And these verticals can do things of which the Times can only dream – charge their users for content. IMDb offers a “Pro” service which gives one access to additional industry content. ESPN uses its reputation as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” to successfully sell access to its paid-for “Insider” service. The Wall Street Journal, of course, puts a large percentage of its content behind a pay gate, charging with ease for a staple product for the financial world. Those highly-tuned outlets are market leaders in their verticals, commanding high ad rates as well as subscriptions, even in a climate akin to a journalistic nuclear winter.

How to Save the Times

There are only so many ways to make money off content, with selling copies and sticking ads around it being two of the big ones. The Times already does that offline, and Mr. Issacson is correct – they need to do that online as well. But to do so, they will need to sever their online product from the reins of their paper-and-ink one, while simultaneously let the online business lead the newsprint one. For the newspaper industry in general, that is a radical change, but a requisite one if survival is in their future. That much is clear.

For the short term and, possibly, for the foreseeable future, the newsprint version of the Times needs to remain very similar to the product it is today. It caters to the same crowd which came to rely on it over the last three or more decades – a clientele which expects and relies on the Times to print recaps of Mets games, reviews of automobiles, wedding announcements, and, yes, the news of the day. Certainly, the Times will need to shed costs, which means less of the non-core articles which do not appeal to the majority of readers. This is already occurring, with the Times offering buyouts last April to reduce newsroom staff by roughly 100.

Where should those cuts come from? Let the online business unit decide.

The online business will have to divide itself up into vertical properties. There is some effort by the Times to do so already, with their portal-like structure online, but that – again – is newspaper-first thinking. A Times technology website necessarily must function different than its restaurant reviews property, which must function differently than the Science Times, and of course, differently than the core headline news property. For example, the Times probably would be well-suited by a bundling menus into their restaurant reviews offering online (something New York magazine understood when it acquired menupages.com) while the Science or Health entities may be inclined to reproduce Wikipedia entries on important topics. The details are left to the vertical chiefs.

The print product to come to terms with the fact that its horizontal product is no longer going to be the crown jewel of the Times brand. It may exist, to some degree, for the next five years or five hundred – we really have no idea. However, it will be of increasingly less importance both in the public eye and to the Times’ shareholders and business. This is a fact of economic life, and one which requires the print version quickly – say, in the next 18 months – shift its role within the organization.

The newspaper’s job must turn from strategic to execution – that is, the newspaper must execute on those details. That means the Times’ print product is going to be heavily covering the verticals its online unit can best monetize, with only a passing thought elsewhere. We may not see a featured wedding in the Sunday Style section, as sending a reporter and photographer to a celebration may not make sense for the online division. On the other hand, we may see twelve area weddings covered in-depth online, and the print version opts to only reproduce two or three, as makes sense for their revenue sheet. The details in those decisions are left to those with the best information.

To monetize the content short-term, adopt these three strategies:

One, for your new vertical sites, adopt a similar type of model that ESPN uses for each of its verticals. Give most of your content out for free, but put some behind a pay-gate.

Two, for the umbrella, horizontal online site (that is, the digital version of the newsprint product), offer many different types of digital subscriptions. Previously, some columnists were sold as part of TimesSelect, but it was an all-or-nothing endeavor. Allow readers to buy thinner subscriptions. Just want John Tierney and Nick Kristoff? That should be available and at a cheaper price point than “all op-ed”.

And three, give your newsprint subscribers free access to everything on the horizontal online site as well as in three verticals of their choosing. This will increase the short-term value of the print version and therefore the ad space therein while also providing lead generation for the verticals.

Longer term, the verticals grow, as Mr. Shatzkin said, by becoming format-agnostic – that is, provide the content off-line as well as on, in video as well as text, etc. Put the restaurant reviews in a Zagat-style booklet. Create a YouTube channel for your Tech vertical and a podcast. Publish a 500-page compendium called “The New York Times Guide to Childhood Illnesses” out of your Health vertical and target the new mother market.

The bad news is that this all needed to be done five years ago, so the Times et al must act quickly. The good news is that they are already on that path – with their best-in-class Crossword puzzles. The puzzles are, clearly, available in newsprint, and are syndicated around the country and into Canada. Crosswords are also available in other formats – online for a fee (but free to newspaper subscribers), in roughly a dozen books, on your PC off-line, in calendar form, for the Nintendo DS, and on its own digital pocket device.

Now, they need to do that for everything else.