Newspapers in Crisis: What Should Be Done?

Like global warming, no one should be indifferent to the fate of newspapers. They play a critical role in our democracy that won’t be replaced by “citizen journalists” or bloggers. I love blogging and social media, but they complement and don’t substitute for professional journalism.

I think numerous technology bloggers and the “tech sector” more generally have been smug about newspapers and their future and watched with some glee as newspapers have lost revenues and readers to the Internet. Somewhat ironically Google and Yahoo! have each reached out to newspapers for very rational reasons and to expand their reach into the “real world.”

Over the weekend and there was a ton of discussion about the decline and potential demise of print newspapers. Today it continues. Here are some noteworthy posts from the past couple days:

Newspapers are clearly growing online but have made their own bed in a way by failing to recognize consumer behavior trends and proactively addressing those trends. But the culture of print newspapers, the incentives newspaper executives have to “stay the course” and protect revenues, as well as general inertia probably all conspired to bring them collectively to this moment. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting and innovative things finally going on.

Change very often doesn’t happen unless it’s imposed upon us from without. On a personal level, for example, people often don’t start exercising or trying to live healthier very often until they have a major scare. On the macro level, people didn’t start to take global warming seriously until a scientific chorus of voices and disturbing images got to a level of unavoidable visibility. Even so, many still don’t connect the threat with their own lives and so denial prevails.

There may still be a fair amount of denial in the newspaper industry that seismic changes are in the works – maybe for the better ultimately. I don’t know.

Tim O’Reilly expresses his faith in “free markets” to help solve the problem and presumably fix the industry or create a successor industry. Unabashed faith in free markets is naïve and misguided. Wall Street is part of the reason that newspapers face the mess they’re in. Wall Street cares not a bit about news quality; it merely cares about news profitability. Free markets create incentives to maximize revenues by whatever means, typically at the expense of quality in practice.

No matter what you feel about the newspaper industry and its sloth or blindness in the face of early warning signs, we collectively should not be indifferent to the fate of newspapers and the value they bring to public discussion. While it may be a more “efficient” advertising vehicle and offer content and interactivity not found offline, the Internet is a complement but not a substitute for traditional media.

That begs my original question: what should be done about newspapers?

There’s lots of advice out there from lots of sources. But I think that newspapers must come together quickly as an industry to explicitly share best practices (and perhaps resources). They need to determine the right combination of strategies to build out more presence and visibility online, embrace community, syndicate content and ads, leverage the combined online-offline assets and brands they have and appeal to new audiences through additional distribution and new products.

The traditional NAA conferences don’t seem to really offer the level of focus and intensity required at this point. Perhaps the NAA could plan something separate for the purpose of confronting these issues in the near term.

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Here’s one such conference on attracting new (young) audiences.

One Response to “Newspapers in Crisis: What Should Be Done?”

  1. links for 2007-03-27 « harbour 7 Says:

    […] Newspapers in Crisis: What Should Be Done? « Screenwerk (tags: newspapers online+newspapers mediafuture) […]

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