June 27, 2006

Right-Sizing the Newspaper

Jack ShaferJack Shafer's column the other day on Slate about how the downsizing of the American newspaper may in fact be "right-sizing" hit the mark. Shafer made a couple of points worth remembering:

 The public has a ravenous appetite for news - online. Shafer cites the New York Times' 25 million unique online readers in April.
 Newspapers are paying the price of decades of over-reaching - in expanding circulation areas and flinging correspondents hither and yon, whether overseas or to statehouses, in efforts to mimic the Times.
 Readership decline also started decades ago, but neither publishers nor editors reacted with the urgency until profits also started to fall.
 Survival strategies for each newspaper will differ - the national papers and local papers have the best opportunities to build solidify or reinvent, respectively, their franchises. Mid-size regional papers in competitive markets (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle) will have the toughest going.
 There is opportunity online, and resources need to be moved there in advance of revenue.

What all this adds up to is Shafer's correct assertion that we are witnessing - and for those working on newspapers, suffering - the "delayed right-sizing of newspapers and newspaper publisher and editor egos in the multimedia age."

The good news, as bitter as it might seem for newspaper journalists, is that market dynamics are forcing newspapers to change, something they have resisted both as institutions and as individual journalists for years. Confronted with a reinvent or die scenario, they are choosing innovation. [Read: If Newspapers Are to Rise Again.] As Shafer points out:

"They're building out their Web sites, investing in free daily tabloids, partnering more extensively with radio and TV, sending advertiser-supported news to cell phones, and frantically devising business models to make the new equation work."

As I said a little while ago, "the conversation about change has changed" and now newspapers, long accustomed to operating in a financial and intellectual vacuum, must begin learning and using the tools of competitive enterprises, among them strategic planning, defining and understanding customers (readers/viewers/users), resource alignment and ongoing professional development. In other words, newspapers - and especially newsrooms - need to ask themselves on a regular basis:

 Where do we want to go? (Vision).
 What steps must we take to get there? (Goals and Priorities).
 What skills must we have to get there? (Capacity).
 Do we have enough staff with the right skills in the right places? (Resource allocation).
 How will we know if it's working? (Measurement).

This is a big nut for newspapers to crack because of their reliance for so long on the "hey, news happens" culture that not only doesn't embrace planning and product development but disdains in an anti-intellectual way as non-journalistic.

Let's be clear, then:

 Understanding your audience - your community - is good journalism.
 Establishing editorial goals is good journalism.
 Questioning current practices (why do we do things this way?) is good journalism.
 Training journalists is good journalism.
 Revisiting all of these issues each year is good journalism.

Shafer is right. Change is afoot. And newspapers are right to shout "we're not dead!" But staying alive is a pretty low standard for journalism, I think you'd agree. Newspapers that envision a future and invest in it will be able to do much better than that.

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Posted by Tim Porter at June 27, 2006 01:16 PM

"The public has a ravenous appetite for news - online. Shafer cites the New York Times' 25 million unique online readers in April."

How many of those unique visitors came back the next day, or within the next three days or even in the same week?

I'm not sure this stat proves anything.

The best surveys, if they are too believed, say that 9 percent of the online adults in the US visited a local news site yesterday. If you surf around to various newspaper site media kits, you'll be hard pressed to find more than a couple who are reporting anything near that level of traffic (that would be about 54,000 unique visitors each day (just for local users) in a DMA with 1 million adults and 60 percent online access). A regional newspaper site is keeping up with its peers if it's doing 2 to 4 percent of the local online audience on a daily basis.

The size of engaged audience has certainly exploded the past few years, and there is no doubt national news is big business online, but where does that leave the regional/local papers?

There's a big hole in audience growth that newspapers need to get serious about plugging.

Posted by: Howard Owens on June 27, 2006 09:42 PM
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