Sunday, February 26, 2012

Newspapers aren't dead, but they do need to innovate

The drop in newspaper monthly circulations is no industry secret. For the last several years the industry has been unable to adapt its business model to changing circumstances, namely the Internet. One has to ask themselves though, why is this, why is it that one of the most popular reading materials has suddenly fallen so out of favor with its constituents. The only thing comparable is the drop from some 70% of the population going out to the movies in the 50s to 25% in 2010. Is News just not as valuable in the age of social media, blogs, and twitter? Given that we still love narratives, and that it is generally accepted that the failure of the theater industry stems from a failure to adapt to technology. I think that rather than News itself not being valuable, it is the industry that has simply failed to adapt and innovate.

The real reason we get the Sunday edition

For this discussion I picked up a copy of a local news paper, The Oregonian, which I felt would serve as a good case study. The Oregonian newspaper is a typical local newspaper that caters to a very diverse set of interests within the State. Like most state news papers it has been effected by the Times/Wapo effect,its "GUI" is more or less the same as any other physical news paper, headline over photo followed by a block of text that is either wider than it is tall or taller than it is wide. Most of the weaknesses of print media are either former strengths or failures to adapt. The format of news papers was decided long before most of the people writing were alive and as a consequence is fairly standardized, this was a strength before because of the limited space of physical newspaper, but in digital age it just can't compete with the scrolling window and hyperlink format.


Because of the success of this particular design and the National effect on State newspapers(thank god Newspaper industry lawyers aren't as smart as Apple lawyers) almost all newspapers look more or less identical. They tend to differentiate via brand recognition, quality of photography and tightness of prose within the publication itself. That being said its quite clear that this is a State newspaper, although one that isn't doing too badly. The photos are large and full color but they definitely pale in comparison to larger national newspapers. One the Oregonian's biggest strengths in comparison to the Times can be seen in the photo to the left. The Oregonian, unlike most newspapers, has teamed up with Politifact to let their readers know that the story have been vetted for accuracy, and not by some partisan hack group but by a generally accepted neutral third party. If you click on the photo you can clearly seen Politifact's logo and their truthiness meter. 

It is also clearly not a small town newspaper as the language used is fairly standard and grammatical errors were not found in abundance. Where the Oregonian stands out from other small state newspapers is its App available in both the Itunes and Android Market place, something that is generally left for the big boys. Its easily accessible, free, and at present it has a modicum of customization. What they should be doing, especially since they are offering it for free, is asking for slightly more personal information and allowing users to "login" to their website something that at present is not possible. They have the beginnings of a voting system to do like what Jeff Jarvis spoke about in "What Would Google Do" , in terms of covering what the "reader" actually wants to read. You will notice that the most commented story as of this evening, when I took the screenshot, is this mornings leading headline from the Front page. 

This is actually part of the reason I think that newspapers still exist, they function as a mechanism for bringing people together to discuss what is "important". Up to this point the discussion was had in small groups disconnected and except for via letters to the editor(which were only selectively republished) the newspaper as an entity was really only communicating directly with our wallets. Newspapers like the Oregonian who have followed the Reddit model of ranking stories based on votes, I think, are going to be the ones that survive because they will add value to their print media that other newspapers simply can't.

 By keeping the conversation going on their website they are not only facilitating a public good they have a personal information goldmine at their fingertips, and most importantly the stories that get the most comments are the stories that will drive circulation which means a feedback loop can be created where by the stories that are reported on and investigated are connected to previous stories that were most commented on or controversial(while this model does have issues with link bait its vastly better than the current model).Where the Oregonian really shine is its online component, all of their writers and editors have twitter and facebook profiles that are easy to find, allowing for connectivity between the readers and the paper.

 Sadly however, there is no way to make a profile on the Oregonian, which is where a lot of the value is, and given that they give away the whole paper via their App, seems like a huge loss of potential revenue. Two years ago I would understand this as newspapers didn't have the money to hire tech guys just to maintain their databases, but in an age of universal login and permissions it makes literally no sense to not piggy back off of other networks.  

Quite possibly the biggest strength of newspapers right now, and conversely their biggest potential weakness, is their use and dependence of/on coupons and continued dependence on direct advertisement. Right on the front page is where this photo comes from, letting the reader know, hey you are saving money by buying this newspaper. This is a big reason why the Sunday edition is not only more expensive, but is the profitable paper for the week. More people read it which means advertisers pay more etc etc. What the newspaper industry needs to do is take this coupon model and digitize it(for tracking purposes), attach it to a paid for app, and ditch the weekday print editions all together. 
This Nature made app should scare newspapers silly, right now nature made will pay them to host their coupons, but if Nature made can get people to download their app they can funnel them coupons and adverts without Newspapers. Newspapers already lost round 1 to craigslist and its cost them billions, they don't want to lose round 1 to the advertisers because it will cost them their whole model.  

Advertisers are wasting money giving me this coupon and Newspapers are wasting money printing it, every knows that. The problem is lots of people do want these coupons and many of those people read
newspapers. Up to this point newspapers were the only viable option for companies to reach out to consumers at a cost effective price point, the definition of cost effective has dramatically changed in the digital age and print adverts just don't cut it anymore. Its also a sad state of affairs when the photos of the boxed food are more vibrant and sharp than the news photos.

I Included these two photos because there is often an argument that advertisers are leery of online adverts because of the fear of lascivity, but clearly if you can but these kinds of adverts in the Sunday Edition of a newspaper you can get away with quite a bit. 

One of the biggest weakness of newspapers like the Oregonian is that they are not leveraging the potential information they could be receiving back from their readers that would be insanely valuable to advertisers and marketers. The could also be source of information in terms of who knows what for social science researchers who understand the need for paying for valuable hard to acquire information like the information that could be inferred from comment patterns on stories over time in a given region. Like all newspapers they cater to their local audience, local audience behavior and information is some of the most valuable data there is. They already send out coupons it would be a simple matter of connecting user subscription profiles with the coupons they use, something that is impossible in print world and ridiculously easy in the digital world. 

Everyone likes the guy who gets
back up after he got knocked down. 
The decline in circulation that the industry is facing is not because we don't value News anymore, its not just because of advertising, its not just because of Craigslist. The news industry, like all legacy industries, suffers from institutional inertia, administrative greed and incompetence, and a systemic lack of imagination. Society still needs institutions to vet rumors, investigate the stories that social media cannot afford to investigate, and most importantly society still needs journalism to act as a check on the power of business, government, and money. We have better tools than ever to do this and our institutions are failing to utilize them. It is up to us to make these changes and they start not in National papers like the Times, but in state news papers like the Oregonian. Society still needs the fourth estate, in an age of truthiness objective fact based journalism is more important than ever.I bought two copies of the paper to do this assignment and will likely buy more in the future because it was nice to read good regional coverage but I will still mostly read online because its faster, cheaper, and more targeted to me. The Oregonian like other Newspapers needs to continue to iterate on what its already done and  innovate in new directions