James Surowiecki on the future of newspapers

For those who don’t follow the non-stop coverage* of and debate over the demise of American daily newspapers, I recommend James Surowiecki’s piece in the current New Yorker, News You Can Lose. (Surowiecki, a staff writer at the magazine, is author of “The Wisdom of Crowds”.)


Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt** was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product. Does that mean newspapers are doomed? Not necessarily. There are many possible futures one can imagine for them, from becoming foundation-run nonprofits to relying on reader donations to that old standby the deep-pocketed patron. It’s even possible that a few papers will be able to earn enough money online to make the traditional ad-supported strategy work. But it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper; more important, we’re almost sure to see a sharp decline in the volume and variety of content that newspapers collectively produce. For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

*If you want to follow it, I recommend the firehose of links to coverage of the remaining days of newspapers from the Poynter Institute’s human-powered meme-tracking phenomenon known to it addicted fans simply by its creator’s last name, Romenesko.

**Surowiecki is referring to Theodore Levitt’s description of a concept he termed “marketing myopia.”

(via: waxy.org)

  • Tony Silber

    Rex, I would dispute that all readers have “the benefits of the old, high-profit regime” now. Except for the big-city papers, most newspaper journalism in smaller cities is appalling. Small, terribly underpaid staffs, often populated with less-talented journalists, performing perfunctory work is more often than not the norm.

    Maybe those places would be better off with a much smaller business covering City Hall, etc., that combines traditional journalism with online media tools like aggressive aggregation and linking, social media and truly interactive communities–even basic message boards that are organic. Amazingly, much of this has passed the newspaper industry by. And that’s why it’s finished in its current form.

  • Tony makes a great point. I’ll also point out that newspapers have two paying customers – readers and advertisers. And advertisers are using using the Times and every other newspaper far less than they used to. I also think almost all newspapers (maybe not the Times, not sure) have gotten a lot worse than they used to be when they had more staff and more pages. FWIW, that was the core of my “accelerating death spiral” thesis last year…http://blogs.businessweek.com/investing/insights/blog/archives/2007/08/betting_on_a_ne.html

  • @Tony & @Aaron – You’re both great journalists, so I’ll agree with whatever you say. I especially agree with you that newspapers in smaller cities are appalling. And I’ll use my hometown Gannett-owned newspaper as Exhibit 1. Were it not for their coverage of the local NFL team, I doubt I’d even visit their website.

  • Tonia Becker

    “Newspapers” do have a place within the future of the media industry. However, like so many other mediums–music, movies, television–the model needs to change. I don’t see much of a future for small community print newspapers. These papers/properties need to move online and these organizations need to figure out how to deliver relevant, compelling information that people care about. Granted there will be elderly member of the community who are not computer literate that may be left out in the cold a little bit, but I see no other choice than to move these properties online and to create business models to profitably support online properties. To Tony’s point, a local newspaper has a fantastic opportunity to create forums and other web 2.0 community elements.

    In my opinion, “big city” papers do have a printed future at least for the foreseeable short and middle terms (possibly not the long-term). However, I think that the content format needs to change. More and more people are reading quick news items online. So, would it make sense for the printed paper to focus more on news analysis and possibly “old-school” investigative journalism type of pieces? Sort of a hybrid between traditional newspaper coverage and weekly news magazine coverage.

    I do believe the key needs to be information/content quality. Newspapers now contain a lot of low-grade pieces to fill the space without the expense of costly quality pieces written by great journalists. Cutting the number of pages and focusing on quality, I believe, will be the key for these larger papers.

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  • Tony Silber

    When I was a newspaper reporter for the city of Bridgeport, CT, 20 years ago, I always bristled at the knee-jerk stories like the retirement of the town clerk, or the promotion of a fire captain, or the new police dog. I wanted stories that affected peoples lives, like why mass transit sucked, and why it took so long to rebuild I-95, why redevelopment never happens in Bridgeport. Sometimes we got those kinds of stories, and important series, and investigations of local corruption, into the paper.

    Nowadays, they don’t even try. It’s all about filling space. Most stories are brainless one-offs, but when you’re overworked and understaffed and have no real direction except a grim “get-it-done” mentality, you have no choice. Not to mention that all the people we would decline to hire back then because they couldn’t write and report well–they’re now in key reporting and editing positions.

    As the U.S. car companies might finally be learning, better is the enemy of good enough. The people who run the newspaper industry are living in a world of “good enough.”

  • Aaron,

    You’re dead right when you point out that newspapers have dual customers – readers and advertisers.

    In that regard, newspapers have two “products” as well – the physical newspapers which readers consume and the newspaper’s “audience,” which is what advertisers pay to reach.

    With that understanding, and given that newspapers make much more money from advertisers than subscriptions, advertisers emerge as the much more important audience, at least financially speaking.

    One piece of the puzzle that hasn’t quite been figured out yet, in my opinion, is how content marketing will affect journalism. More and more ad agencies and traditional marketers are figuring out that there’s often more bang for the buck to create compelling content around their message on their own rather than pairing their message with journalistic, objective content. If the largest paying customer of newspapers (and news providers in general) decide they don’t like the product online, then that paints a dim picture of ad-supported journalism online.