Ted Rall offers 3 cures for newspaper conundrum

Ted Rall writes in his column this week that newspapers could save themselves if they “take three audacious but absolutely essential steps, the print newspaper industry can save itself.” Those steps include: 1. taking newspapers offline, 2. copyrighting all articles they write, and 3. cut off the wire services. All of these steps, he argues produces the “simplest principle of capitalism: scarcity increases demand.” He does note that the challenges of actually getting all newspapers to do this is next to impossible.

Nice to think about, though.

41 thoughts on “Ted Rall offers 3 cures for newspaper conundrum

  1. While taking newspapers offline seems counter intuitive, it works for magazine, so it could also work for newspapers. A lot of sites like WSJ or Washington Post require a subscription for certain content already. However, it might also lead to more people getting their news from sites like news.yahoo where its mainly just AP feeds.

    About copyrighting articles…does anyone know how would this effect the use of newspaper articles for research? I am not familiar enough with copyright rules…

  2. I think it’s great that Ted is trying to come up with a solution to the decline in the newspaper industry. You see plenty of talk about how bad things are but very few suggestions on how to fix it.

  3. Ted is right on the mark. The problem is the papers are owned mostly by Big Media and journalism has become secondary to Advertising. The biggest issue is lack of healthy competition, and with the deck stacked against this, little else is going to have an effect.

    Local news is the real strength of newspapers, and too many are afraid of writing bad stories about the publisher’s golf buddies and advertisers. Online news sources are no threat if papers would do what Ted suggests, and focus on local news besides police reports and social events, and hire more reporters than advertising sales reps. And how easy is it to even buy a newspaper nowadays? Paper machines have disappeared.

  4. I stopped subscribing to my newspaper because there were too many ads, the newspaper wasn’t covering local issues well enough, the paper didn’t follow up on the issues, and the paper was running puff pieces for people with an IQ of about 35 that didn’t matter. Basically, the newspaper wasn’t challenging or reporting in ways that could generate controversy. It seemed to studiously avoid offending in reporting the news. Boring. So with this in mind, cutting off access to the internet is not going to fix the problem, because most “established” newspaper are mediocre now, they are afraid of offending their advertisers, and don’t deserve to survive.

  5. I can see some problems. I could never understand why the racetracks in the UK didn’t copyright the entertainment they provide, including the racecard, and charge the newspaper for reprinting it and passing it off as their own ‘infotainment’.

    The problem I can foresee, if Ted’s idea came to fruition, is everyone charging newspapers for content they don’t currently pay for, TV companies copyrighting their schedules, racetracks copyrighting their racecards, local football teams copyrighting player images in action shots, Local Council’s copyrighting the images of buildings in their burghs, and so it goes on. Those events that relied on their local newspapers for publicity and so offered free access may not be so willing to do so when the newspaper copyrights everything in its pages and limits its own reach.

    I think it may well be true that going online with free content was a stupid idea, but I can understand why they thought it was the way to go.

  6. Thinking about it more, if a group of large newspapers (nationally and internationally) took the time to come up with a comprehensive database online that had all their printed material, with some basic tools, that would easily allow me to search and cross reference all information between all the newspapers in the service from their first issue to the latest one and print out articles in PDF — I’d pay for that type of information service on a month to month subscription basis. It is all about context, and the newspapers can figure out what makes them valuable in the web context — which is all about information and being able to get to it a comprehensively as possible.

  7. Following Ted’s lead, does this mean the syndicates could charge MORE for a comic strip feature if they sold it to LESS papers?

    As a result, MORE newspaper slots would be available to a variety of MORE features … And everyone would still be making money.

    Just a thought 🙂

  8. I’m with Ted when he says cut the wire. If a paper runs all AP why would you read it when you could get that same info in real time on the internet? Local news should be local and relevant.

    I hear lots of complaints about advertising, but unfortunately here in the real world of Hooterville USA we have to have it to pay for our paychecks, ink, paper and computer equipment. Not to mention repairs to our building and equipment (presses, computers, paper boxes). I do agree that advertising supplements are way out of hand though. That’s the kind of crap that breeds fluff feature pages and entire tabs of nothingness. Too bad that’s not my call.

  9. “does this mean the syndicates could charge MORE for a comic strip feature if they sold it to LESS papers?”

    That’s the way it used to be. But the missing element is competitor newspapers. There is no value in a comic strip unless somebody else wants it, too. JOAs have resulted in the death knell of papers.

  10. I’m not sure what Ted is talking about when he says that newspapers should be copyrighted. Every article printed already *is* copyrighted. And, anyways, copyright can’t prevent others from taking the information contained in articles and reusing it … unless radio reporters are essentially reading the article verbatim over the air. Then you could sue for copyright violation. Or, as an old newspaper story I heard years ago went (as an alternative to court,) print up a false newspaper every so often and deliver it to the radio outlets you know are ripping you off.

    Cutting off an online presence wouldn’t do anything to help solve newspapers’ financial woes and would undermine potential future web branding. And I have never really understood the argument that web sites undermine print sales since people can read the articles for free online. Readers essentially get the print articles for free as well since the cost of subscriptions covers only a small portion of the cost of producing and delivering the newspaper.

    Rall’s thoughts on the wires (mainly AP) is a bit trickier. The wires were set up to save newspapers money and I believe the wire agreements require the member newspapers to share their stories with the wires.

  11. How does this account for the rise of the free daily/weekly local papers springing up across the country? You can get your local news from an alt. weekly and your national/international news online.

    Traditional daily newspapers have more resources than those scrappy little weeklies, they just need to show it. Focus on their strengths instead of trying to compete with the internet.

    I also agree with Ted’s point about low supply = higher demand. As was said before, there are already some papers and magazines that allow you access to archives provided you are a subscriber.

    All this is a long way of saying “agreed.”

  12. …one caveat, though. Don’t demonize the wire services. My comic is currently being distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune Campus wire service; without them I’d be sitting on years of unpublished comics.

    If there were no need for wire services – that is, if all those jobs went to single papers instead of being shared in a big pool – I wouldn’t see a problem with it. But I don’t see that happening.

  13. Wes,

    You’re right–the contents of newspapers are copyrighted. But individually-copyrighted articles can be protected more effectively, That’s why you’ll see big scoops separately copyrighted.

  14. I like my local paper because it does an excellent job reporting all the local news and events. Often the only way I have a clue what’s going on in town is to check the paper. They also have an excellent up to date comics section that routinely tries the newer strips and they have a great and balanced op/ed page with most of the best columnists going.

    I used to complain about their lack of national and international coverage until I realized that I get all that news from radio anyway as I do all my daily driving.

    I like that I can easily find all the stuff that I want and can quickly cut out and save any item of interest without arguing with my computer about the “printability” of said article or the perpetual “you’re low on toner” message.

    I also find most newspaper online sites to be difficult to navigate (the search functions almost never give me what I’m looking for) and cumbersome in the enormous amount of memory they use up and how long the various pages take to load.

    All in all, I just have not been impressed with the whole “putting the paper online” thing so Ted’s suggestion that they go offline resonates with me – but he’s surely right that the chances that papers will make these changes are pretty much nil.

  15. Excellent column, Ted.

    And I agree with Ted Dawson’s observations as well when he wrote, “The problem is the papers are owned mostly by Big Media and journalism has become secondary to Advertising.” I don’t think a truer statement has ever been written.

  16. Ted is so right. A good example of this is porn. Many porn sites make millions by charging for content. They have “free” content but they are able to make money without advertising.

    I know, I know, your going to say “news ain’t sex.” True, but all porn content is “basically the same”. We all know what they are going to show…yada yada yada. News content has a much bigger base PLUS advertising will still be in play, unlike porn content.

    It may sound strange but I think the the porn industry has a working model of how to balance free and paid content on the net.

    Newspapers really need to do SOMETHING! In ten years it will be too late.

    It’s amazing how many times I watch local TV, national news or read the papers and see/hear/read stories that I saw on a regional blog or on Drudge two days ago. I think to myself, these guys are just taking this stuff right of the web.

    TV news is worse. If I see CNN, ABC or NBC show one more grainy youtube video as “news” I going to scream – I’m paying for cable so they can show me “evolution of dance!?!!? WTF!!!

    Ted is right on this, its a shame that newspapers are too scared to be bold and do something “new”. They just want to fire cartoonists and check Drudge for stories. sad.

  17. Ted’s a CWA pal o’ mine, but I gotta disagree on point #1 (although I agree on points #2 and #3). My argument is summed up by his use of one phrase… “dead trees.” Newspapers are an obsolete and inherently wasteful means of conveying information. Pretending like the internet/wireless revolution isn’t happening is not the answer. If anything, I say the “newspaper” industry should go in the opposite direction… put MORE money and effort into figuring out how to effectively monetize their product on the internet, instead of trying to have the best of both worlds.

    Definitely not saying the content should be “free”… I think they need to focus on developing write-protect technologies (preventing cutting-and-pasting), coming up with integrated advertising techniques to make it more valuable for advertisers, finding more user-friendly ways to sell subscriptions, and/or doing an end-run around the aggregators by blocking direct links to stories (redirecting to the home page).

  18. Ted, you are still such a goof. Newspapers jumped to the Web because they were already losing subscriptions. In those early days of the WWW, more and more people started turning to the Web for news, and it soon became apparent to newspapers that *gasp* people were starting to get news from sources that weren’t the local rag. While a few were already there, this is when the majority of papers hurried to the Web in search of lost readership, some even buying out local news sites just so big media could try to corner local news. Newspapers’ entire presence online is most certainly a bold attempt — an attempt to rescue their own drowning product, and their ever weakening voice that is a part of it.


  19. Just as I’ve always advocated that strips and newspapers should seek a more exclusive relationship (i.e. a paper or group should seek to develop a strip of its own, paying the creator a full time wage just as it does with a journalist) I do believe papers have to develop their USP as newspapers – what makes each paper unique and worth buying in and of itself?

    British papers do practice single-strip relationships and those strips are synonymous with the papers themselves. Beau Peep is a Daily Star strip, Andy Capp is a Mirror strip, but the same guy writes both (Roger Kettle took over when Andy Capp’s creator died).

    Why would one guy end up writing both? Because he’s a class writer, that’s why, and the newspapers concerned are prepared to pay for class. U.S. editors (those worthy of the name) should take a leaf out of the Brits book and start asking “what can I give my readers that other papers, the Internet, TV and/or radio can’t?”
    They ain’t going to find their answer in anything a syndicate can offer.

  20. Newspapers jumped to the web before they began losing subscriptions to the web. They were losing subscriptions simply because they hadn’t nurtured their audience and because the media was fragmenting again, as it did when radio came along, as it did when TV came along.

    And the alternative to JOAs is for one paper to fail entirely, which is what began happening in the wake of WWII and accelerated in the decades afterwards. JOAs don’t do a great job of preserving competition, but the alternative is not two healthy papers.

    Ted is right that the papers shouldn’t have begun giving it away, but, like the Emperor listening to the phony tailors, they listened to the prophets of the new media who assured them they were incompetent and behind the times if they didn’t jump on board. And once enough of them did, they had essentially written their own death sentences. Banner ads aren’t squat, but if they can add another five bucks from readers three and four and five markets over, they’ll take it. Never mind that they’re losing five hundred bucks because other papers are diluting their hometown market.

    However, I think his attitude towards the wire services assumes we are all the NYTimes and Boston Globe. Sharing news is nearly as old as the medium and is the only way papers beyond the major metros can carry national or international news. They certainly misuse it to carry entertainment and fluff, but syndicated cartoonists should be cautious in attacking that policy, I think.

    If there is no wire service, there is no news on the Internet for people to read for free. So how do they find out that we have a war going on? We need the wires.

    Much of what Ted says makes sense, but needs to be scaled to the average market, not the major metros. Still, the central problem with newspapers is that they are being run by Wall Street investors who have leveraged themselves to a point where a 20% profit margin isn’t enough, and who have no interest in leaving behind a healthy paper for their children — they want to leave behind a healthy stock portfolio. They’ll toss newspapers aside as readily as they tossed the steel industry aside, once they’ve extracted the profits. But before they go, they’ll sell off the presses — this is already happening — and leave nothing for a community investor to purchase except the name, which they will have driven into the ground.

    I agree that localism is the answer. I edit a pair of tiny community papers with no wire or syndicated features — nothing but locally generated local news. We should be the cockroaches that crawl out when the war is over, but here’s the catch: We still need presses (we’re too small to own our own) and paper to print on. When the big boys finish cannibalizing themselves, we’re in trouble, too.

  21. There are three things in life that I’ve found to be unequivocally true and absolute… the sun will rise in the east and set in the west… water will run downhill… and no publisher or editor will ever listen to anything a cartoonist has to say about the newspaper business, no matter how much sense it makes.

  22. Okay, I must have missed something, so rephrase it, because I’m listening.

    I agreed with Ted that newspapers were idiots to begin posting content on line for free. My “argument” isn’t with the recommendation that they stop. They should. But the companies that own them are stock-swappers with no interest in the future of the industry and, as long as somebody is posting free content, they’ll all keep doing it.

    So I agree with him again that the odds of that happening are about nil.

    However, I honestly don’t understand the part about cutting off wire services, unless I’m correct in assuming he’s not considering the place of the small papers. Unless he means there should be no coverage of national and international news in newspapers, because otherwise, where would small papers get it? More important, where would readers get it?

    I gathered that his point was that that newspapers shouldn’t provide copy to the wire services because that’s how it ends up on the Internet, which is fine with me if it’s being shared with other papers and only kept from being posted. But he didn’t say that, or, if he did, it isn’t what I heard.

    So, if it’s not available on line, and it’s not available in the local paper, how do people outside the major metro areas find out what’s going on beyond their own county line?

    Fox News? CBS?

    I’m listening. Help me understand how this would work. (Assuming, again, that the idiots in the big offices were going to listen anyway.)

  23. Great article. I do lean towards Mike P. in questioning the theory of getting rid of the wire. I don’t think that would help matter.

  24. THe reason this would NEVER work is simple…
    NEW Online newspapers, previously not affiliate with the paper variety, would sprout up and you’d be right where you are today. In other words, the cat is out of the bag, the horses are out of the barn…plain and simple – there is NO going back. There is only creative adapting to the now situation of life in the online.

  25. Dan,
    If new online newspapers were to step into the breach left by print newspapers, that would be fine. In other words, they would hire reporters, maintain the infrastructure required to collect news. My concerns aren’t saving news on dead trees. It’s about saving news, period. Right now, only print collects news. The Web, radio and TV use what print collects, and doesn’t pay for it.

  26. “Newspapers are an obsolete and inherently wasteful means of conveying information.”

    One point on this, Abell. The timeliness of newspapers has been made obsolete but I have to disagree about wastefulness. Looking beyond just news, computers have increased the use of paper dramatically, consume tons of electricity collectively, and are obsolete themselves in a few years, leading us to buy newly manufactured ones. I’m not advocating becoming a luddite–just throwing that out there.

  27. “…consume tons of electricity collectively”

    Good point.

    “…and are obsolete themselves in a few years, leading us to buy newly manufactured ones.”

    Oh man, don’t get me started on this… I’m already pissed at Apple this week. Freakin’ blood suckers.

  28. “My concerns arenâ??t saving news on dead trees. Itâ??s about saving news, period. Right now, only print collects news. The Web, radio and TV use what print collects, and doesnâ??t pay for it.”

    Well, TV stations and networks still have newsrooms, and a few radio stations continue — ‘specially if you include NPR stations. That aside …

    Four or five years ago, I canceled my print subscription and began to read the daily paper on-line but it was a “real” subscription — I paid for it and had to use a password to log on to the site. What I got was a PDF version of the paper, which I leafed through and read on line. Worked just fine, but of course that meant the geniuses had to step in and screw it up, right?

    Word came down from corporate to dismantle the service and make everything free. Part of the reason, I suspect, was that they had a plan to sell national ads on all the papers in their chain and wanted to get the most eyeballs they could nationally, even if it hurt our local income and circ figures.

    How’d that work out? At the time I was reading the paper on-line for a fee, the company’s stock was worth about $45. Yesterday, it dropped below $3. You tell me how it worked out.

    Newspapers now have something called “E-editions” which are basically Flash-based, so they’re faster than PDFs. Will the newspapers have the cojones to take down their free sites and push readers into e-editions? Well … they’re scared to lose eyeballs, even though they aren’t making jack.

    But that’s the key — move the content on-line without destroying the revenue model. Ted’s absolutely right about that — Whether it’s on paper or on a screen isn’t the point.

    The point is whether news gathering operations are being properly subsidized. And they aren’t.

    When the fools have finished destroying the revenue stream for news collection, we’re going to be in trouble … we’ll be stuck with, on the one side, Bill O’Reilly and the Faux News crew, and, on the other, Ariana Huffington’s army of rich twits and unqualified volunteers.

    Scary times.

  29. Anyone have any ideas to why internet advertising rates are so low?

    If news ‘wants’ to be free then they need to fix advertising.

  30. David,
    Web advertising rates are low because advertisers have found them to be much less effective than print ads. When you read a newspaper, you can’t help but see the ads. Online, ads are easily skipped as an annoyance. Also, print readers spend much more time with the paper–47 minutes for the NYT–than they do browsing a newspaper’s website–7 minutes for NYTImes.com. And even that 7 minutes is inflated. If I load up NYTimes.com and go to the bathroom, it counts as time spent at NYTimes.com.
    Even the front ads you’re forced to watch, on Salon, for example, before reading an article are ineffective because all you have to do is go to another page while you’re waiting for it to finish playing.
    Web advertising is a failed revenue model, and that will probably not change

  31. The reality of news on the web is that it has become a commodity product. Readers just don’t value news enough to pay subscription fees in large enough numbers to make it worthwhile. Revenue from ads online aren’t enough to support a full newspaper staff but is more than newspapers can get from readers paying subscriptions to access the web site. Unless that paper has a highly desirable content unique to that publication like the Wall Street Journal.

    Which leads to another problem: the number of people who read news (printed and/or online) is shrinking. Older people seem to still be reading news in similar numbers to years past but younger people are not. And I think that trend is a major problem for news operations.

    So, would Ted’s ideas lead to a market where a large number of readers would pay for local news they could only obtain from the local paper (print or online)? I suspect not because the pool of people who value and pay for news has been in decline for a long time. How to turn that around is, I believe, the major challenge for news operations.

    Which is, I think, another big problem because newspaper operations are just not set up for the current climate. In general, newspapers are very deliberate and cautious.

  32. All you have to do on television is switch the channel(or with Tivo fast forward) Television is starting to give away it’s content for free too, see hulu and comedy central… They sell the Daily Show on iTunes, yet you can watch it for free on their website.

    Why haven’t Universal Press and United stopped posting their comics on their website? Thus Forcing people to subscribe. Couldn’t they start the change ? They already have subscription plans. Are they in the same vein as wire services in regards to selling their comics and columns on the web?

  33. This is like saying that pigs could avoid becoming bacon by growing wings.

    Not only is it unlikely, but it is too late. With a rise in serious online competition (like the Huffington Post), if the larger papers don’t have a web presence they will lose that revenue stream to their online competition.

  34. “Unless that paper has a highly desirable content unique to that publication like the Wall Street Journal.”

    There’s that word again – “unique”. I understand that the WSJ doesn’t carry cartoons and is one of the few papers whose circulation is strong (and even rising).

    “Unique” is the word, folks and it doesn’t seem to have sunk in, so I’ll say it again:
    What does your paper have that people can’t get at another paper?

    We’re cartoonists here, so I’ll keep it cartoon-centred. Why should people buy the New York Times when the strips they feature can be seen in umpteen other papers, whether online, offline, for free or not?

    Continuing to keep it cartoon-centred: Where is the next UNIQUE comic strip talent coming from in this syndication-controlled business?

    It’s not just editors who can be accused of not listening – there are plenty of cloth-eared cartoonists too. Start thinking outside the box whilst you have the shreds of an actual newspaper industry left.

  35. Alex,
    How is the Huffington Post “serious competition” to actual newspapers, or even wire services? HuffPo wouldn’t have anything to comment upon without newspapers who pay for reporters to go out and find news. Since they don’t pay their writers, they don’t even have real opinion writers.
    HuffPo’s quality is an embarrassment, proving that you get what you pay for.

  36. I sell cartoons to the WSJ, or at least I did before I took some time off – has it stopped taking cartoons McGookin? Or are you talking about strips?

    All newspapers do is deliver customers to advertisers. The content they carry is designed to appeal to their ideal reader, and they promise to deliver x-amount of those ideal readers (the old demographic)to that advertiser in return for that advertiser’s money.

    Those advertisers have looked at falling readerships and they will not, under any circumstances, go back to the newspapers in the hope that the readers will return.

  37. “Or are you talking about strips?”

    Yep, I’m talking about strips. The WSJ prints individual cartoons, obviously, which is not syndicated content, and that squares with my argument that syndicated content, by virtue of its non-uniqueness, is part of what newspapers have to combat if they are to survive.

    The fact that many large newspapers operate in a one-paper town yet still can’t establish a unique persona is testament to the malaise of “McDonaldism” sweeping the world generally.
    Strips can be equated to Big Macs, you’ll get the same bland, uninspiring item wherever you are in the U.S.

    What they SHOULD be like is the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld, offering a unique and superior product only available at one location, creating huge demand and getting paid well for it.
    A columnist is unlikely to be able to achieve this, but a talented writer who also draws could do it. A Larson for the New Millennium, in other words. Working for one paper exclusively and selling compilation books and swag on the internet would bring in more than enough money for the right candidate. Fame (if it’s what you seek) will follow, no matter if your strip is only published in the L.A. Times.

    I never saw Dilbert or C&H in a newspaper until years after I bought a Dilbert or C&H book in a store. Syndication brings success to a very few.

    Cartoon strips have to become unique. Newpapers AND cartooning will benefit from it.

  38. Except in a few choice markets, journalism is dead.
    There are so many mistakes…egregious ones that are abysmally bad, that get into the local establishment rag; that it makes “Shoe” look professional. ( why Shoe is a good parody ).

    Newspapers today are less honorable than prostitutes.

  39. ok, no swearing I promise.
    We work for peanuts.
    Our equipment is often obsolete.
    Our buildings are often in disrepair.
    We take all manner of verbal abuse.
    Death threats, whiners, you name it.
    Now we’re whores.

    Well, speaking of prostitution, I’ve got ads to build. Ta

  40. Its seems to me the decline of newspapers preceded the rise of the internet, and so long as cable and network news exist and is willing to field its own reporters or buy from the wire, papers will be out of luck. Especially since they publish online. I read the NYT every day online, but I would stop if it was subscription because there is no way I can afford it. MSNBC would do.

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