Whale falls

Dec 23 2008

Most news organizations have been slowly shrinking both their budgets and staffs in the face of a vanishing market. Both insiders and outsiders are divining what went wrong and how to adapt to a new world of publishing. There are at least as many different opinions and strategies as there are keyboards. Even in a world composed of ceaseless chatter, journalists are a verbose and opinionated group.

It's not that anyone's appetite for news has diminished. It's just that they didn't want what traditional media was serving, or maybe how it was being served. It's easy to focus on the particular details – the foolishness of considering a daily newspaper a breaking news medium decades after television stole that away, the rank arrogance of newspapers after the disappearance of true competition, or the excessive focus on packaging, at the expense of the product. These are just some of the complaints advanced as reasons for the decline, but whether they're true in whole or part, they don't explain much. The truth is far more complicated, and has more to do with the new rhythm and pace of the average person's life than it does with journalists. I've mentioned context in another post,and there's no need to elaborate on it here.

It's more interesting to visualize the future of news, especially in light of the latest announcement by the Detroit Media Partnership. Many people in the industry have been wondering which major metropolitan daily would first switch to online-only publication. The well-respected (but rarely read) Christian Science Monitor recently made the news when it announced it would stop printing and publish only on the Internet, but they're a different kind of publication from the daily metropolitan newspaper. It seems that the Detroit JOA is showing that, instead of a radical break with the past, we might see a more gradual move away from print dominance to a more complicated distribution system. They're still going to print a daily newspaper, but they just won't deliver it to homes for most of the week.

On its face, it seems a fairly bold step, at least for newspapers – they focus their print efforts on the days where they get most of their print revenue (82 percent is the number I've seen). But when you break the daily newspaper habit for home readers, you stand a very good chance of breaking their print habit entirely. After all, once you get used to reading it online for four days out of the week, why not give up the print subscription? In any event, it's a great move for everyone else, because the results will be extremely illuminating. It's not a trend yet, but eventually most newspapers will face similar choices. Not all of them, as John Duncan points out in an excellent post.

John has always been good at pointing out the obvious fact that for-profit media organizations are businesses, and should be run as such. It's a refreshing viewpoint and moves away from the overall hand-wringing mentality that dominates media industry discussions, conducted mostly by folks who yearn for simpler times that they understood. But really the discussion should not be about what New Media is or isn't, or what the future of Journalism is or isn't. It should be focused on the simple questions, like "What do our customers really want and how much are they willing to pay?" Or given that newspapers have at least a decade of experience with the Internet, "Are our online operations still worth it for our particular newspaper?" Other newspapers might ask, "Should we lay off 90 percent of our staff and publish only on the web?"

For some newspapers, the right online presence is just a self-serve interface to their customer account, or even just a brochure listing contact information. For others, maybe the right print presence is no presence at all. These basic questions don't seem to get discussed much by the right people. I do see a lot of newspapers pouring time and money into their online presence with only the conviction that it's the future for their business. I'm not so sure they've really thought about what that particular future looks like.  The only thing I know is that it doesn't look like their past, with its increasing revenues and comparatively high margins. It looks lean and small, even in good years. For most newspapers, it may be the only future. But it shouldn't come as a shock.

Privately, I've mentioned to friends that the collapse of newspapers may not be such a bad thing in the long run. I've compared it to whale falls: When a whale dies and its corpse falls to the ocean floor, its nutrients can support a host of organisms. In a similar way, when a large media organization disappears, it gives smaller, nimbler enterprises room to breathe, in the form of advertising dollars and readers. Alternatively, most newspapers may not close up shop, but just fade and compete with other small news startups, or even passionate amateurs.

One of the reasons I quit the business is that even though I could see what was broken and doesn't work, I didn't have a clear idea as to what it would take to fix it. Gannett certainly had a plan, and I was happy to help implement it until it became obvious that it wasn't going to work either. Kevin Kelly's recent manifesto "Better Than Free," clarified things, in the sense that it frames the problem in a clearer way. I've been thinking, off and on, about the points Kelly raises, and how they would relate to a news organization. I think this long and rambling post is part of that process. I can see a local news organization (or more) thriving, not just surviving in the future. I don't see all the details yet, but I see enough that makes me happy.