January 18, 2006

Reinventing the Newspaper

The other day I argued that the business survival and the editorial relevance of local and regional newspapers will depend on how strongly their managers challenge basic assumptions about what goes in the newspaper, what type of people work on it and how they spend their financial and human resources. I said:

"News managers need to fundamentally rethink how they use their newsroom resources. They're not going to get more of them. Scrap the staff-written national stories. Don't send to non-local-franchise sporting events. Use wires for movie reviews (add local from readers). Redirect these resources to investigations, better writers and stronger designers." [Read: The Sunday Not-So-Funnies.]

Today, Jeff Jarvis goes deeper along the same tack. He deconstructs the newspaper section by section, feature by feature. The nut of it (emphasis added):

"Newspapers waste too much money on ego, habit, and commodity news the public already knows. In an era of shrinking circulation, classified, and retail ad revenue - and in the face of shrinking audience and increasing competition - papers have to find new efficiencies and cut these expenses to concentrate instead on their real value (which, I'll argue, is local reporting).

"Newspapers also have to have the guts to stop trying to produce one-size-fits-all products that serve every possible reader and interest in one edition." Read it all.

Agreed. Local news is the franchise for all papers that are not the Times, the Journal or USA Today. As resources for newsrooms shrink - and that will not stop in the near future -- reinvention of local news must begin with hard questions about resources: Why do we do this? Do readers care if it's staff or wire? What can we do that makes us unique? What works better online?

This is a leadership issue. No one running a newspaper (or a section, or a group of reporters) can say any longer they are not aware of the deep issues eroding their papers' quality and relevance. These people must step up and create change.

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Posted by Tim Porter at January 18, 2006 08:00 AM

All the data anybody could want to support your argument is on the readership.org site. I have a little more in my hip pocket.

Here's what I sent in reply to Jeff Jarvis' post:

"Iíve just retired from one of the larger media companies, but I spent the last couple of years trying to get 21 newspapers to do much of what youíre proposing.

"To those who disagree with you, hereís some data to chew on: Only 30-35% of the newshole in American newspapers (all sizes) is local. Some 50-70% is commodity news ó usually wire but not always, and always information that is readily available elsewhere for free. From proprietary research that I know well: The subjects that are most important to most Americans are health, kids/schools, family issues, community/local and religion/spirituality. Except for general community/local, less than 2% of newshole is the typical allotment for each of those subjects. And oh, by the way, the high-interest audience for sports is only about 25%.

"Conclusion: The fundamental challenge for newspapers is not print-to-web migration (although thatís an important operational strategy). Itís filling print and digital news products with relevant content. And that simply isnít happening."

Your comment about leadership is right on. In my experience, most of the people in the newsroom are starting to figure out that dramatic content change is needed. Their publishers, however, don't want to experience the pain that people going through dramatic change must endure. Neither do the corporate folks to whom the publishers report.

My prediction is that by the time the people who can allow change to happen figure this out, it'll be too late.

Posted by: Mike Phillips on January 19, 2006 05:17 PM
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