Newspapers Serve The Whole Menu, But Readers Only Want The Steak

by | Jul 17, 2011

For newspapers, the following graphic from Pew Research Center pretty much says it all.

As if declining revenues aren’t enough, Pew also concludes that media businesses are not innovative enough to drive change, nor are they even in the driver’s seat.

In the 20th century, the news media thrived by being the intermediary others needed to reach customers. In the 21st, increasingly there is a new intermediary: Software programmers, content aggregators and device makers control access to the public. The news industry, late to adapt and culturally more tied to content creation than engineering, finds itself more a follower than a leader in shaping its business.

NYU Professor, Clay Shirky, frames the conversation another way. “Outside a relative handful of financial publications, there is no such thing as the news business. There is only the advertising business.”

Shirky also neatly deconstructs what it means to be a newspaper:

Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked. Online, though, the economic and technological rationale for bundling weakens—no monopoly over local advertising, no daily allotment of space to fill, no one-size-fits-all delivery system. Newspapers, as a sheaf of unrelated content glued together with ads, aren’t just being threatened with unprofitability, but incoherence.

The great unbundling is now a matter of record. However, it’s not newspapers that readers crave, but news. And news, when it is not a commodity, is worth paying for. When is it not a commodity in the ever-abundant digital arena? When no one else is covering a particular beat. Or when the beat is shared, but the quality of reporting in one vehicle is noticeably better than the competition.

Shirky claims that “news has to be free, because it has to spread. The few people who care about the news need to be able to share it with one another and, in times of crisis, to sound the alarm for the rest of us.” I think we need to clarify terms. The “news” Shirky describes is currency in a civil society, and even more valuable in an uncivil one. But what do we call the product of reporting and aggregation that isn’t mission critical, but still essential to a niche audience? Do sports writers and business reporters create “information” rather than news?

In my opinion, there’s an audience for all of the above. People will pay their legacy journalism organization for local news because while alternatives do exist, ultimately readers want to know what The Oregonian or Omaha World Herald have to say on a given topic. The same holds for local sports, business and the rest. But like cable TV, subscriber packages need to be unbundled. If you want to subscribe to just the business section of the newspaper, great, you should be able to get it for a fraction of what it otherwise would cost to subscribe the whole paper.

[UPDATE] The Economist believes, “The digital future of news has much in common with its chaotic, ink-stained past.” As the market for media moves from mass to niche, media elites wear no clothes. It’s anyone’s game today, as it was in the days of pamphleteers.