Future of newspapers (or how I ate myself to extinction)

Michael Rosenblum — advocate of video for newspapers — asks a familiar question today: What is a newspaper?

It isn’t a new question. In the past decade it has been asked with increasing frequency. These days those voicing the query often have a note of desperation in their voices.

Rosenblum has some ideas, but they are largely familiar recommendations. However, some still need to be restated.

Treat the web like it’s own publishing medium. This is so true it’s hard to believe any in newspapers would need to have that repeated. But they do. That means not simply converting your print product to online bits then calling it a day. It also means using the strengths of the new media toward typical newspaper ends, e.g. informing the public and selling ads.

He offers a few ideas of his own on his this might be accomplished. 1. Hire out newspaper photography/video crews to shoot weddings. 2. Use those same folks to make advertorial content for big advertisers (Bloomies is having a sale, let’s treat it like a story, then we can charge them for the work and possibly making residual ad dollars as well). 3. Rather than simply have newspaper movie reviewers, set up an online hub where the viewing public can join the fun.

Newspapers with wedding photographers might actually work. However, local movie reviewers or their newspaper employers might be better off cutting a deal with Rotten Tomatoes then trying to compete with the many well-known and well-established online movie sites. Of course, most papers have already showed themselves as very poor hands when it comes to such cooperation.

As for doing video advertorials, that might work if the newspaper folks can a) do a better job than an advertising firm hired by the store, and b) deliver viewers. At least on the web the paper could manage CPMs for something like that in the same way they do pure advertising.

Of course, the problem then becomes that papers with dwindling staff would tend to focus heavily on things they can monetize better. There goes the coverage of local politics unless someone is screwing somebody else. Plus, they might tend to under-report stories about those institutions paying them for advertorials.

There is no doubt newspapers need to reinvent what they are and how they do it. Likewise, there are tons of things they could be doing to try and gain online viewers and marginal income. A first step is focusing on core audiences and realistic untapped sources of revenue. Instead of creating monolithic sites that regurgitate the print product online, can they manage niche sites that focus on narrow interests held by an avid group of readers? Can they escape the compulsion to try and be everything to everyone in order to focus more tightly on their own UNIQUE and COMPELLING content? The rub is that with every layoff and buyout retrenching newspapers further remove themselves (both in manpower and brainpower) from the ability to do anything more than what they do now. In classic fashion they are returning to the bunkers to wait the war out.

Given the aversion to change by newspaper publishers and their print readers it is likely too late for many to make the radical changes needed to thrive in the new world.

The real question for many newspapers isn’t whether they will discover the magic formula for success. It is whether there will be anyone left once the air raid sirens stop howling. The way things are going at the moment, what we may see — at some point in the future — is the emaciated survivors blinking at unfamiliar bright sunlight and recounting tales reminiscent of the Donner party.


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