Saving Newspapers

A manifesto, of sorts, by Brian Gongol

What's wrong with newspapers?

For about a century and a half, most American newspapers have drifted towards a natural monopoly model. Between 1850 and 1900, it was common for cities large and small to have several newspapers. Newspapers consolidated over time (giving us hybridized names like Star-Tribune, Post-Dispatch, and World-Herald). Consolidation and the drift towards single-newspaper towns came about because a conventional, printed newspaper is a natural monopoly: Most of the expenses are tied up in preparing the first copy of every issue. As long as customers pay just enough to cover the costs of printing and distribution, it's just as easy to publish 500,000 copies of a paper as it is to publish 50.

Why are newspapers in dire distress now?

The natural-monopoly model no longer applies, even though newspaper management (by and large) seems not to have realized it. Any newspaper today that remains a product defined by the product it delivers on inked wood pulp is likely to end up institutionally dead. This isn't an exaggeration: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune is bankrupt. The Chicago Tribune is bankrupt. The Rocky Mountain News just went out of business. The problem in so many cases is that the transition from competing -- for consumers and advertisers alike -- under the rules of a natural monopoly to those of the multimedia environment has been so abrupt that it's too much for many of these institutions to handle.

Is this the end of newspapers?

Not necessarily. It is the end for organizations that are defined by their ability to put news on printed sheets of paper. It is not the end for institutions that are defined by their ability to collect and disseminate news, which may happen to put some of that news in print.

What would work instead?

Here are the three ways a newspaper institution can survive:

Have unique content

That word -- "unique" -- defines the presence of a new kind of monopoly. Monopoly power comes from doing something that others can't or won't do. Pepsi can't sell Coke. The delivery of unique content is and ought to be the first priority of a news institution if it intends to remain afloat.

Deliver the appropriate news via the appropriate medium

Not all news belongs in print. Not all news requires video. Not all news can be heard. Not all news is best explained in multimedia format. Not all news is instantaneous. Not all news can wait for tomorrow. But until news organizations of every stripe -- television, radio, newspaper, and Internet -- realize how to deliver every story via the medium most appropriate to that story, the ones that realize it and act first will have a distinct advantage.

Understand the role of an archival institution

There's a reason people think of the Sunday newspaper as something different from the weekday paper. It serves as an anchor; you may miss the daily stories, but if you read the Sunday edition, you'll know the important things. Other media have always been more in-tune with the transitory nature of fast news than newspapers are; television and radio have always delivered more reports, more often. But neither the broadcast media nor online media have ever fully realized the importance of institutional archiving. Newspapers have filled that role in the past. The news institution that understands how to fulfill this role while serving the other two above will have a chance to survive.

Upon what authority are any of these claims made?

Almost fifteen years of studying the newspaper industry -- from the outside. A degree in economics, the senior thesis of which studied how media determine the value of their listeners, readers, and viewers. More than 15 years in broadcasting and more than a decade of Internet-development experience. Besides, you've read this far. Something you've read so far must've made you nod your head.

Why bother?

People count upon their institutions, whether we realize it or not. And the local newspaper -- or news-delivery institution -- is an institution vital to the success of a community. It creates a forum for ideas, enlightens the voting public, and aids commerce. It stores a community's institutional memory, and it gives meaning to the First Amendment. And it makes money. Ultimately, what we know today as a newspaper will continue to exist, but it has to evolve. Stagecoach lines once crossed the plains. Now, tour buses do the same. Yesterday's Pony Express is today's FedEx. The most important part is to realize that the same institutions that have been delivering daily or weekly newspapers can and should evolve along with technology so that they can continue to serve their communities -- and profit -- without interruption.

What should a newspaper owner, publisher, or editor do?

If you want to save your newspaper, big or small, I think I have some ideas that might help. Contact me and we can talk. I'm not trying to sell anything. In fact, to the contrary, I've spent the last 15 years wanting to buy a newspaper. My specific plan has changed, but I think I have some answers.

- posted February 27, 2009