How to Save the Newspapers: (Yet Another) Proposal
I have seen a number of articles recently about how and why the American newspaper is dying, and what to do about it (cf. Bring Back the Evening Paper!, Final Edition: Twilight of the American Newspaper, Network Effects, YCombinator’s New News idea (#3), and much ado about Rupert Murdoch pulling his various media outlets’ content from Google).
My own experience tells me that part of the reason papers are struggling, either in their print or online versions, is that they are locked into a terrible revenue model based on advertising. Ads take up greater and greater space in the physical paper, and seek more and more attention on a digital page. They are typically not relevant to my interests, and range from nuisances (an extra page turn to get past the spread for expensive perfume) to actual intrusions (graphics that cover the news content in my browser until I explicitly close or disable them). The papers are apparently in a tight spot: fewer people are subscribing, so they must rely on more advertising revenue to operate; but since readership is declining, individual ads are worth less. Papers must therefore be more aggressive about the number, size, and flash of ads they print or display; this furthers annoys, and drives away, readers. Of course, they can’t be as good at the advertising game as online media can — they can’t personalize print ads, they can’t print anything animated or with sound, and they probably can’t afford to keep separate advertising departments and print different editions for every city they sell papers in — so their advertisements will never be as targeted or effective. Their value will decrease accordingly, leading to further reduced income.
If left unchecked, this cycle will result in papers with more and more advertising, and fewer and fewer readers, until they can no longer afford to operate. That’s the end of a paper, which, for many reasons, can be a damn shame.
The problem here comes from the assumption that the papers must maintain a certain revenue level to remain profitable. They turn to advertisers to fill in the gap in revenue left by subscribers, which slowly drives more subscribers away. One way to save the newspapers, therefore, is to do away with that assumption. Instead of looking to maintain revenues, they should cut costs.
They shouldn’t cut costs in the ways they have been, however: closing bureaus, laying off writers and editors, putting more content online with less editorial review. These are cuts to the things which make papers valuable. The value of a newspaper is in the professional training and the contacts of its reporters and editors. Despite what proponents of “New Media” might say, trained journalists still have an edge in their access to world events and the people involved, their ability to report those events in a straightforward way, and their knowledge of how to interpret and draw connections between those events and others.
So where should the papers cut? There is one major area that, apparently, they haven’t considered: getting out of the printing business. This doesn’t mean that papers shouldn’t be printed; it just means that someone else should print them. Specifically, newspapers (especially national newspapers) should make their content available, free of ads, to anyone who wants to print and sell it — for a fee. This fee might be subscription based, or it might be on a per-paper basis, but it would allow anyone who thinks they can efficiently print (and possibly deliver) a newspaper to do so. The printers would then turn around and sell the papers to individual customers: newsstands, coffee shops, delivery services, even individuals.
Ideally, newspapers should allow printers broad freedom to modify the content of the newspaper, so that printers can seek to make a profit by printing different formats, placing local ads, and so on. The only way printers would be likely to sign up for this arrangement, after all, would be if they thought they could somehow do a better job printing and distributing papers than the newspaper companies themselves could, so they would need to have an arrangement that allowed them to apply their own expertise. The newspapers might dictate some aspects of the printing — for example, they might not let their title be printed if certain severe content modifications were made — but the fewer restrictions on the printers, the better. If a printer wants to use a different font because it uses less ink or looks better, or a different paper quality because it’s cheaper in his area, or employ any other strategy for making money selling copies of the news, he should be able to do so.
I have no numbers to back it up, but I think this strategy has prima facie plausibility because it puts both aspects of the newspaper business in the hands of people who know it best. Newspaper companies would be paid for producing the content which they are experts at producing: writing about the news, in all its many forms. Printers would likewise be paid for the fruits of their expertise: physical copies of that content, produced cheaply and sold in a relatively small local area. Physical newspapers, like many information resources, suffer from a “last mile” problem that small, local businesses are better equipped to solve than a central printing authority. By shifting the cost of producing physical papers to the people best equipped to solve that problem, newspaper companies would be free to focus on the news, instead of on how to sell and print advertising. With their revenue source back in alignment with the actual value of their product, they might just be efficient enough to stick around.