Can Newspapers be Saved?

Hank William’s paints a bleak future for the traditional print newspaper industry. Readership is increasingly going online for its news, advertisers certainly aren’t interested in buying ads in unread print editions, and, unlike search ads, website display ads don’t work.

How is a cultural institution like the New York Times to survive? That’s the problem Mr. William’s article has had me thinking about all day. His solution, however, leaves me scratching my head. He wants to solve it by making the browser experience more like the newspaper experience – give them the power, he claims, and users will gladly fall back into familiar newspapers modes of browse and scan, making ads more relevant and saving the life of the venerable newspaper.

I don’t buy it.

I agree that display ads are less effective online than in print, but that’s just one piece of the equation. Traditional ads in general are losing their effectiveness. Print ads themselves don’t do as well as they did before the Internet. As a consumer, what use do I have for advertisements? They no longer inform, as they once did; I can ask questions online and get trusted answers instantly. With my needs well covered, I do my best to avoid ads in whatever medium they are found.

The online ad purveyors are busy adding in support for geo-location, but hyper-local ads don’t recover the utility that newspaper ads used to have. True, I may be interested in a new local restaurant, but when the local store will never beat the price of the online store, I don’t care if they’re having a sale. The only advantage they have over the online store is their location, and that’s a fact I can easily find out when and if I care to. There’s precious little that an advertisement can tell me that I will really care about.

What we’re seeing is not just a breakdown caused by a new interface to the same old content, we’re seeing the crumbling of a business model whose assumptions have eroded away underneath it. The new medium, as every major new medium before it, is entirely rewiring the way our society, our businesses, and our brains work. A browser with scan and pan isn’t going to bring back the relevance of traditional advertising.

So what will newspapers do to save themselves? Not knowing what else to do, they’re going to put the ads where people have to read them – in the story. Movies have done it with product placement and radio with announcer-read advertisements. The traditional reliance on ads will force their hand, and a good portion of the public will just learn to deal. The ads that are the basis of the business will begin to show on the face of the business, but I doubt that even this will save them. It will just be the last gasp of the dying enterprise.

With big-budget ad-supported players failing to make the turn, the real reporting is going to come from one and maybe two sources. The first is the massive number of plugged in people who are already becoming the nervous system of the planet. This source is a sure bet to remain a major force. The generation of news online is already a distributed and complex interweaving of parsed and recombined news streams – we can only expect that to grow and take on new forms.

The other source may or may not come into being. As the newspapers and magazines pass away and the organic news network gets noisier and noisier, there may be a thirst for the best of what the newspapers had offered – the investigation, the insight, the sharp analysis. If there are those who can provide what the network can not, if there are individuals who by their unique point of view can create content that the market desires, then we have all the makings of a natural news market – without the massive players and without the ad dollars. Those who can provide value will be valued. The market will drive the business, and it’s ultimately something very close to a subscription model that will keep good news alive.

One thought on “Can Newspapers be Saved?

  1. Glad to see you back.

    Newspapers have been dying since the days of Hearst and Pulitzer. And yet, it may be be serious this time. Readers don’t read papers anymore, never mind the ads. Still, I don’t think we’re going to start seeing “product placements” in the stories themselves. That would just be weird.

    But see, the problem is serious. We are not just seeing newspapers losing readers to the Internet. We’re seeing a whole category of reader disappear into thin air. People are not interested in that thing newspapers do so well – reporting. I haven’t seem much of it online either. Research has been reduced to search; opinion has replaced analysis. If newspapers die, so will journalism as we know it.

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