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Five more reasons the newspapers are dying

Bill Wyman published an insider’s view of the failing newspaper industry at Splice Today. We’ve heard most of the reasons he presents, but they bear repeating in light of our ongoing discussions here about what to do about it.

1. Consumers don’t pay for news. They have never paid for news.

Remember â??shoppers,â? the poorly designed throwaway publications filled with tacky little ads? Daily newspapers are high-end shoppers. They spent a lot of money on original content to class up the operation and give people a reason to ask for the ads to be delivered.

If paywalls are the online equivalent of a subscription, then this does bring into question whether or not the paywall model can work. But since ad rates online are a fraction of newsprint rates, this creates the conundrum for a viable online business model.

2. Newspapers are the product of monopolistic thinking.

These monopoly positions created a dynamic by which the only thing a paper could do wrong was to offend or, God forbid, lose a reader. The prospect of offending readers, or having subscriptions canceled, penetrated deep into papers and became a comic cliché, famously satirized by Berkeley Breathed.

Most newspapers in the U.S. arenâ??t watchdogs, and most of the rest donâ??t spend an inordinate amount of time being watchdogs. Most papers are instead lapdogs, and the metaphorical lap they sit in isnâ??t even that of powerful interests like their advertisers. (Though they definitely have their moments.)

The real tyrant the papers served was the tender sensibilities of their readers.

Heh. Identifying your customers as the problem that made you fail seems spineless. Which is his point…

3. Timidity doesn’t work on the web

The web doesnâ??t reward blandness. It doesnâ??t really like the obvious, the inoffensive and the established. Today, if you published a web page with the headlines I just listed on itâ??you know, starting with â??Wooden Memoriesâ? and going right on down to â??Great Gifts for Teachersâ?â??you wouldnâ??t get many readers. In this way, the web mercilessly exposes the flaccidness of the content of most papers. It creates a straightjacket for them: As they desperately bland themselves out on land, the material they have on hand to impress in cyberspace is correspondingly pallid.

Here’s where his insider’s view gets a bit personal:

4. The staffs of the papers, from management down to the reporters, deserve a big share of the blame

The truth is, newsroom staffs are permeated with fear of change and a discomfort with new technology. At bigger urban papers, parsimonious bosses, unions and work rules made the transition even more difficult. Papers had to open Internet operations offsite (in one notable case, in another state) to get around union rules. The tender buttons of the news staffs were so sensitive that today many large papers still have not entirely integrated their newsrooms.

And here’s part of why news aggregators are kicking the newspapers’ collective rear-ends:

5. Newspaper websites suck

First, the sites donâ??t even try to present information to visitors effectively. Imagine a typical story page on a newspaper website. In your mind, slice it in half horizontally, and then in thirds vertically. Number the top three rectangles one to three, and the bottom three four to six. Sorry about all the math, but hereâ??s my point: Why is it that, in the vast majority of cases when reading stories online, when you request a story, the site gives it to you, essentially, in rectangle number five? Why, after customers have asked for a specific thing, in other words, does the paper give them five times as much stuff they donâ??t want?

Wyman’s advice? Read the whole thing.

Community Comments

#1 Larry Levine
August/18/2009
@ 1:56 pm

Newspapers are dying because they cut back on the comics & the few they DO carry are printed too small, often making them unreadable.

#2 mike crachiolo
August/18/2009
@ 4:07 pm

i agree 100%

#3 Pedro Molina.
August/18/2009
@ 7:21 pm

Very interesting.

#4 Andy Anderson
August/18/2009
@ 7:44 pm

Great post – From 1999 through 2007 I worked at a Scripps owned newspaper group in Florida. I held the position of Marketing Manager and provided cartoons on a freelance basis. I was very involved with all departments and got to see the good and bad of the business. The Florida market benefited the losses of the other markets – the “blue hairs” brought their newspaper habits with them when they moved to FL from other states. But, all good things must come to an end.

Sadly, the organization had an opportunity to focus their efforts on being a community watchdog, and entertaining read and a valuable resource but management focused their rescue efforts on the advertisers’ needs instead of the reader.

In my opinion, if you engage with the readers and build an audience, the advertisers WILL come…but what do I know.

#5 Shane Davis
August/18/2009
@ 9:57 pm

Bill Wyman is working in the newspaper industry? I don’t doubt the validity of his article, but he’s probably regretting leaving the Rolling Stones now. Did you see the last tour, Bill? $560 million!

“I can’t get no circulation!”

#6 Jason Barry
August/18/2009
@ 11:35 pm

Newspaper editors are cowards. They do nothing but take content away from the readers, then whine about losing readers. Why?
Readers will continue to tell Gannett, Tribune, McClatchy, Hearst, Singleton, Cox, and the rest of the clowns to take their products and shove it.
Newsflash bozos: Readers won’t pay more for less.
However, those timid editors will continue to slice and dice content to please the vampires running the corporate financial departments. Accountants aren’t editors, but they sure are running the news departments these days.

#7 Mike Peterson
August/19/2009
@ 5:28 am

To begin with, the entire article is a lengthy thumbsucker that doesn’t fit the bite-sized attention span of the average reader, even one inside the industry who needs to know this stuff.

Second, there are some important things that he either glosses over or just doesn’t get. To begin with, he blandly tosses off the concept of newspapers as having a monopoly on information, when the fact is, from the time of the Revolution until the WWII years, most towns of any size had at least two newspapers locked in a Fox/MSNBC competition, with one supporting the blue collar union workers and the other the bankers.

This is why comics “sold newspapers.” They didn’t sell a paper to someone who didn’t otherwise want a paper — they forced the choice of which paper for the large number of people in the middle who didn’t align passionately with the bankers or the unions. (Editorial cartoonists, by contrast, served in the roles of Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, hyping the political alignment of the paper.)

He also assumes that newspapers had to put their content on the web. He assails them for not being hip enough when the big crisis in content is that they tried to be hip without thinking it through. I don’t mind him not knowing how papers worked in the 1930s, but I object to him not knowing about the conversation that happened a mere dozen years or so ago.

I mean, Toyota and Datsun came to America and kicked Detroit’s ass, but at least they had to build their own cars! The newspapers cheerfully handed over their work so that the web could drive them out of business. It was an insane move at the time, but anyone who suggested that the Emperor’s New Clothes were a fantasy was kicked to the curb. I don’t know how to reverse this monumental blunder, but any analysis that doesn’t discuss it is no analysis.

There’s more, but I’ll close with this quote: “If I were running a chain of papers, hereâ??s what Iâ??d do …”

The only way that sentence makes sense is if it continues, “I’d break up the chain into small, individually owned community papers, and I’d order them to stop looking at the staggering behemoths in LA, Chicago, NY and Boston, and concentrate on being tight, local and necessary.”

But it didn’t.

#8 Henry Clausner
August/19/2009
@ 7:23 am

Cartoons bring money, period. From the local carnival to St. Mark’s Square in Venice you will see “us” bizzy drawing. Every office has cartoons taped up on the wall because people save ’em, signs in stores have cartoons,I can keep goin’ on this… some editors don’t get it…WAKE UP.

#9 Shawn Labadie
August/20/2009
@ 11:32 am

Content Content Content, it drives everything.

Mike had a great point at the end. Newspapers or e-versions of them will survive if they bring good local news because the national and world news is and will continue to be covered infinitum by thousands if not hundreds of thousands of instant news sources on the web and cable.

In the “old days” the newspaper was the only way to get news outside of your local area and after radio and then TV it was the only way to get detailed news outside your local area. That has not changed and the newspaper industry needs to acknowledge it and change or die.

Advertisers will buy and therefore allow consumers to have access to places that provide content that consumers want. It’s a vicious circle. The ones who do it right will survive and those that don’t will cease to exist. That’s the free market and it is good.

#10 Geoff. W.
August/24/2009
@ 1:04 am

Those who truly believe that the decline in comics is a direct cause to the decline in newspaper sales are sadly deluding themselves.
Fact is, we live now, more than ever, in a period of NOW! Whatever one wants to know, to see, they can right now, thanks to the internet and technology.
Why pay $.50 for day old news, when I can learn what’s happening this instant via my iPhone?
Sure, when people read the paper they’re apt to clip and save comics. But I know few who actually go out of their way to read the comics in the paper. If they see em, they read em. If not, whatever.

#11 henry Clausner
August/24/2009
@ 6:56 am

Some people are possibly reading between the lines here, who said:”the decline in comics is a direct cause to the decline in newspaper sales?”..I don’t think any one of us believe that statement. But I think we all agree having them visible and (clearly i might add) in the paper or on the internet is a good thing.

#12 Geoff. W.
August/24/2009
@ 11:59 am

With you previous thoughts, Henry, yes perhaps I was reading between the lines. However, the first post, from Larry Levine states clearly, “Newspapers are dying because they cut back on the comics & the few they DO carry are printed too small, often making them unreadable” implying that comics are (one of) the sole reason.
However, I have to say to you Henry,I don’t know if making the comics more visible would be a good thing, as you stated, or just not a bad thing. (Similar sounding statements, but they are different).
Like I said, I work with what can best be described as “general public”, with people of all ages,sexes, and races.No one but me seems to go out of their way for the comics.
I’m not saying my experience is absolute, but I imagine its pretty average.

#13 Henry Clausner
August/24/2009
@ 1:48 pm

not a bad thing indeed,well said Geoff ….

#14 Mark McComas
August/24/2009
@ 5:35 pm

I love newspapers. Every time I go to a different city, the first thing I grab is a local newspaper. They haven’t had the monopoly on news for many decades, but they have had the ability to “flesh out” a story, to give us all the facts, whether they did it or not. One of the guys up there is right–corporate power is too great in newspapering. That’s why they give us less all the time instead of more. Circulation is down? Get rid of the local editorial cartoonist. Fire reporters. Get rid of copy editors. That’s like doctors in the 18th century bleeding a man when he was sick–they are making the situation worse and they don’t even know it. The key is that ALL newpapers must be more local. Folks get their national news from TV. What works for little weeklies will work for big dailies–more people pictures and features, more about local gov’t and more comics, political cartoons, suduku, crosswords and the like. That you can’t get on TV.

#15 Bhob Stewart
August/26/2009
@ 10:51 am

The seven installments of my “Death of Newspapers” series are at Potrzebie: http://potrzebie.blogspot.com/search/label/death%20of%20newspapers

In this series I have attempted to show how the loss of comic strips brought newspapers to their knees. Viewing these comics creations, one can see “pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe.” That magnificence became faded and tattered as the decades passed.

Is it possible that editors resented the popularity of strips and thus made them smaller and smaller? Why didn’t the National Cartoonists Society step in and say, “We want bigger, not smaller. We want more, not less.”??

Bhob

#16 Donna Barstow
September/7/2009
@ 9:53 pm

Has, uh, Bill Wyman ever read a blog before? Because there’s no chance in h double hockey sticks I’m going to read a post that long. OMG.

Long articles are for print and books. He forgot that one, I guess.

Other than that, I disagree about most of the points summarized above, and they’re so easy to disprove I’m not going to waste my time doing so.

Jason, let me try to understand what you are saying: All newspapers are no good, and everyone on the web hates them, is that about right? Good luck going all over the world each day to find out what’s going on.

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