January 30, 2006

What do newspapers do????

by tolles at 6:43 PM

What do newspapers do???? *WHAT* do newspapers *DO*?

For chrissake.

The job of newspapers is to inform the public about what’s happening on their beat – be that a town (SF Chronicle) an industry (Financial Times), or the world at large (NY Times). Their job is to inform the public to what’s going on – They can be objective or opinionated – but they need to speak to their audience wherever that audience lives (online or offline). If they earn a large enough audience, they can connect that user base to advertisers, and make a fair profit. Newspapers connect audiences with advertising events like sales, or opportunities correlated to the audience – a sale at the local hardware store, a new branch of a restaurant opening, or a new arriving at the local dealer. Things you don’t know to search for, but interesting nonetheless.

Whether they use journalists, or bloggers, the role of the newspaper is quite clear – The big change is to the economics of the offer. Decades of high profit margins have shielded papers from hard decisions involving unions, printing costs, the rise of online readers and a decaying demographic for their products. Looking for future of the newspaper? Look to the past – when there were no monopolies and the advertising business was harder – papers worked to build audiences, and were amongst the most competitive and cutthroat businesses out there – not above making the story to sell papers and not above having a point of view to keep audiences.

Nick Denton runs a newspaper. Jason Calacanis runs a newspaper. They don’t call them that, but that’s what they are.

The folks on the business side of the newspapers all seem to be working overtime to try new stuff. What’s funny is that the folks who don’t get it are, for the most part, journalists. The ones who most vociferously defend the separation between advertising and editorial are now surprised that when 2/3 of your revenue dries up, and your industry is in the middle of the biggest shift since the invention of moveable type, that their jobs are going to change.

A lot.

(To be fair, there are a lot of journalists who seem to get it…but a lot of folks need to wake up and smell the Napalm.)

The title and meat of this comes from a my reaction to a rhetorical question we got from a reporter trying to frame up the changes in revenues and business in the newspaper industry. I realized I had a pretty strong viewpoint here…

The newspaper of the future needs to fight for audience –- fight for its life, before someone comes and takes it from them. Similar to the strategy of the American auto industry, to rely on its capacity, and sell Americans the cars they build, when smaller and more nimble rivals are instead, building the cars that Amercans want, newspapers need to build the products their audiences and advertisers want, rather than basing their strategy on a capacity for great journalism and printing pages of classifieds.

The successful newspaper business of 2010 might look a lot like the successful newspaper business of 1910 – and the connection to Pultizer won’t be his prize, but rather his business methods.