News on a printed page is a product in tremendous transition, and vital signs are not strong. Several recent headlines (only a few them printed):
– The French government is going to “rescue” that nation’s newspaper industry by providing 18 year olds with state-subsidized free subscriptions. – Hearst Corp. without warning announces plans to close the Seattle Post Intelligencer if a buyer cannot be found. – Carlos Slim’s financial “rescue” of the New York Times Co. involves extending the company $250 million at 14% interest at the same time as the company is selling interests in real estate and other assets to raise new cash. – Fewer and fewer people are getting their news from the printed page as other sources (of course the internet first among them) become more widely used sources of news.
As a longtime newsman, I have been struck by these and other signs of the impending apocalypse long predicted for printed news, and I am hopeful the imminent demise is exaggerated.
But there is one big paradox that is worth pointing out:
For many years, our quality printed news sources (The Times, The WSJ, The Economist and many, many others) have confused tradition with staying power.
Tradition is core to their brands, and maintaining journalistic quality has long been a pre-eminent goal of these companies, as it should be. But for too long, the proprietors and executives who have run these companies have allowed tradition to cloud their vision in looking forward. In many cases, business planning for the coming year was not much more than applying a percentage increase (in advertising rates, in circulation base, in readership) to the prior year performance, and holding a team accountable to achieving those results.
That model is forever broken, I am afraid. Craigslist, Ebay, Yahoo! News, The Daily Show and SMS news alerts are barricades to the future ever being as simple as the past for newspapers and newspapermen. It may be that 2009 is the year that this truth finally becomes self-evident for the industry. It has clearly dawned on a few of the more forward-thinking proprietors. And it long ago was clear to investors, who have driven stock prices for newspaper companies to historic lows.
Recognition by the industry of this situation would be a good thing. The sooner it becomes clear, the more rapidly those companies may be able to focus on new products and new ways of reaching and engaging an audience that is as hungry for news today as it ever has been.
Just not news on the printed page.
Craig Forman is a speaker on innovation, media convergence, and change. He created the growth strategy for EarthLink’s $1 billion consumer business. He led Yahoo’s News Division to #1 in traffic, ahead of CNN. He has also successfully started and advised several successful software, content and telecom start ups. He was part of the founding team to take the search engine, InfoSeek, public.
Early in his career, Craig was a WSJ reporter and bureau chief in Japan. He was part of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In addition, Craig has appeared on CNN and NBC providing news commentary.