News Unfit for Print

By the end of the year, I wonder if anyone will still be putting the words “news” and “paper” together. I just read a report on The New York Times site that the San Francisco Chronicle may be shutting down. I’ve been following the disheartening wave of newspaper downsizings and closures, but this latest blow hits very close to home: I lived most of my life in San Francisco, and my first cover story was published in the SF Weekly.

To rescue the beleaguered newspaper industry, there has been talk of a return to paid content (not so sure about the soundness of trying to unring a bell), nonprofit endowments, or government bailouts. Yet, as we’ve seen with the auto industry, throwing money at complex business problems does not suffice. Consider the music business, beset by the increasing legal and illegal distribution of music online. Today, successful musicians are giving music away to make money on concert tickets. Deeply entrenched, seemingly fundamental models have to be rebuilt in light of digital distribution and the expectation of free content, despite the fact that making quality content costs money.

In January, France took the bailout route to try to rescue its newspapers. Interestingly, as part of its plan it included free, 1-year newspaper subscriptions for 18-year-olds. It seems a dubious notion that the receipt of paper products will transform digital natives’ reading habits. However, while I have serious doubts that a bailout is the way to go, the French measures wisely included recommendations that newspapers restructure their finances, better train journalists for multiple channel content delivery, work to bring in younger readers, and, most importantly, transform business models.

Certainly if I had the secret recipe—this revolutionary model—I would be one of the most employable editors, even in these dire times. Of course, I am on the lookout. I sincerely believe that in this collapse of the media business, the ensuing news vacuum will need to be filled. There will be an opportunity to apply our skills to developing content creation models that advertising can actually support. This advertising will likely be the web-based kind, which unfortunately doesn’t (yet, at least) pay the rates we have gotten for print. The cold reality is that we have less money to work with, good economy or bad. Yet the digital advertising model can’t be sustained with less content than we’ve produced in print; it arguably requires more. So how do we make more with less?

Maybe because of the journalistic separation of “church and state,” sales and editorial rarely get together for business-model building. I’ve actually heard management say things to editorial such as, “Make the magazine and sales will sell it,” when, in fact, the salespeople have not bought into the salability of another print product in this crowded (and struggling) market. I also have seen these products fail, not because salespeople don’t want to sell them, but because out there on the frontlines, they face the reality of digital appeal.

I recently had a great talk with Dennis Sullivan, a salesperson from another Information Today, Inc. publication, CRM magazine. We were discussing a remarkable bit of news we both read: that DogTime Media’s audience has grown to 9 million. Why is DogTime growing while many of the finest media companies are collapsing? Dennis suggested that it is because DogTime doesn’t have as much to lose. It is flexible, agile, has low overhead for content creation from the outset … all things stacked against entrenched media companies, which have built extensive infrastructure, have employed vast staff to produce requisite content, and have an ad model based on print. How can they abandon what they’ve always done? And how can they make these investments pay?

The next day, I read an interesting story in the Outsell Insights enewsletter about Demand Media, which offers more than 500,000 professional and member-contributed how-to articles and 100,000 how-to videos. According to the article, “The site has grown 171% in visits year over year according to Google Analytics and self-reports more than 30 million visitors per month. With unemployment rising and the economy sinking, the number of searches and views of economy and personal finance related articles on eHow has increased 84% in just the last six months.” Outsell VP and lead analyst Chuck Richard explores how eHow is “adding editorial horsepower without adding salaried editorial staff, while adding content at a rapid pace.”

I know that two stories, coincidentally timed, do not a trend make. Yet I think that we career journalists and publishers have a lot to learn from software and content upstarts, which increasingly intersect (to wit, StockTweets). Nouveau content empires can be built with a credit card, a community, and a good idea. Overfunding and overspending are so last millennium. So, I fear, are many truths we hold dear, such as the long-standing news media value proposition. Believe me, it isn’t that I think journalists are without worth in this emerging content economy, but I think we need to be at the forefront of uncovering and developing viable business models for newfound success.