Why Newspapers are Struggling

Newspaper Speed ImageIn my home town of New Orleans, it was recently announced that the local paper, The Times-Picayune, will be scaling back publication to three times a week, trimming 1/3 of its jobs and focusing more of its energy into its online sister Nola.com.

The city has been in shock. New Orleans is about to become the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper. The Times-Picayune has won four Pulitzer prizes in the past four years and has a long history of having local publishers and being a highly-profitable paper. It’s reporting immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which earned it one of its Pulitzers, was the only source of information for many trapped in the city. It’s a fundamental part of our city in a very powerful way and that makes its disappearance a very deep loss.

But the problems faced by the Times-Picayune are not unique. Though most newspapers haven’t had to endure a major hurricane and the aftermath that comes with it, The Times-Picayune has been challenged by many of the same problems as other newspapers, namely decreasing circulation, dwindling ad dollars and little online revenue to compensate.

But why are newspapers struggling? The Web, if anything, has increased the amount of news reading that is taking place. Newspapers could be more valuable than ever.

To quote John Green, truth defies simplicity and the newspapers are under assault from a dozen different angles, some more deadly than others.

Blame the Plagiarists, Pirates and Aggregators

With stories like Righthaven, the AP/Meltwater lawsuit, etc. it can feel as if news organizations have put a laser focus on copyright issues.

To be fair, copyright issues are certainly part of the problem. Every time a newspaper spends money and resources to provide original reporting on a story, there is always dozens of sites out there that are perfectly fine taking that reporting and repackaging it as their own. This can range from legitimate aggregation to outright plagiarism and everything in between.

This certainly has a negative impact on their business and isn’t helping an already grim situation.

However, online newspapers trade more on their reputation and their image than their exact content. Infringers hurt, but as long as they aren’t as trusted as newspapers, they aren’t likely to siphon off significant amounts of traffic. Newspapers, by in large, seem to understand this. If you look at Google’s transparency report, you can see that virtually every other medium is more active in filing takedown notices than newspapers. In fact, no newspapers or print news agencies are in the top 100 as of this writing.

This is not because of a lack of tools. Companies such as Attributor have long offered powerful tools for tracking and taking down text content on a large scale but few news agencies seem to use it. In fact, Attributor itself has shifted its market away from news agencies and toward the anti-piracy side in dealing with book publishers. (Disclosure: I have done consulting for Attributor).

Though the news organizations make headlines when they file suit, they clearly aren’t very active on copyright matters and doesn’t appear to be investing heavily in addressing copyright issues. If infringement was killing the industry, or playing a major role in it, one would think that they would be doing so.

But if it’s not infringement killing the newspapers, what is?

Tracing the Paradigm Shift

The Internet changed the way people get information forever and it’s caused a multi-pronged attack that has shaken the entire industry.

Consider the following five shifts that the Web has caused and how they’ve impacted the industry.

  1. No More Monopolies: Historically, newspapers have had monopolies or near-monopolies over their area. For example, the Times-Picayune has been the only daily paper in New Orleans since 1980. However, with the Web those geographic monopolies are gone as I can read stories written all over the world. This has been extremely damaging for national and world news coverage. This is further complicated by TV news organizations, such as cable news networks, providing large amounts of written reporting as well.
  2. Classified Ads Erosion: The classified ad section has traditional been a major revenue source for papers but with the rise of Craigslist, Ebay and online job sites, it’s possible to reach a much broader audience more cheaply online.
  3. Divided Ad Dollars: Ad dollars are also more divided thanks to the Web. Local advertisers, traditionally a staple of newspapers, have more options than ever. With local advertising online becoming easier, more effective, simpler to track and cheaper (due to lack of printing costs) more ad dollars are being diverted away from print.
  4. Changed Consumer Behavior: For much of the past century, reading a newspaper over breakfast or coffee was common, it’s much less so now. With so many more choices of things to read and so many more ways to read them (print, tablet, laptop, phone, etc.) fewer people are reading the paper daily in any format.
  5. Weaker Ad Revenue Online: If newspapers had been able to replace dwindling ad dollars in print with new ones online, there wouldn’t have been much problem. But ads are cheaper online (as per the third item) and the revenues from online streams are but a fraction of the print ones even now.

What is tragic about this is that the functions that the newspapers traditionally earned revenue from have been replaced by online tools but the core function that the newspaper has played in society hasn’t been replaced, at least not nearly as well.

In short, the newspapers themselves appear to be going under, even as the Web is struggling to find a way to fill the void they could leave behind.

This could open the door to some major challenges for journalism on the Web in the coming years.

Bottom Line

Most likely the newspaper industry will survive the transition to the Internet. However, it will look a lot different and many of the institutions we cherish today will be gone or drastically weakened. In short, it’s going to be painful and, as someone with a journalism degree and a strong love for print journalism, this paragraph cuts deeply.

However, newspapers that are lean, agile and able to work well online will survive and eventually thrive online. They’ll be smaller, with less emphasis on print and a stronger focus on audience connection, but they can continue to provide much the same function.

The journalists of tomorrow will be fewer in number and tasked to do a lot more. But one of the benefits of the Web for journalism is the ability to do just that.

In the short term, there’s going to be a lot of pain in newsrooms across the country (and world). But for the savvy, the future can still be very bright.

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