On Xark, Dan Conover lists 10 reasons why he no longer believes newspapers will be significant players in the reinvention of news. It’s a pessimistic piece and I can’t say that I fully disagree with him. I think I’m just more hopeful (some might say naive). First are his reasons; my responses follow.
1. Newspapers’ core audience still doesn’t want change, but they’re aging and they like a product that nobody else wants.
We’ve already seen the truth to that. In The Tampa Tribune‘s case, which Mr. Conover cites, it was a dramatic change the readers rejected: a reduction by three sections and dozens of pages. But if newspapers can keep their loyal print readers buying papers, papers can subsidize their experiments in new media to attract younger readers.
2. The culture of newspaper management is a dysfunctional relic of a low-bandwidth, monopoly era.
It is true that many papers are owned by large, publicly traded companies. But there still papers that are independently owned, either in whole or in part. The problem is that the old guy-in-his-bathrobe-sitting-at-a-computer can compete and actually use a paper’s own resources to compete with the paper; it’s called a hyperlink. The sooner papers realize that linking is vital to Web success, the better. Also, innovation needs to be able to able to worry about long-term success over short-term profits.
3. The culture of newsroom leadership contains a fatal 20th century flaw: A fundamental belief that equates all new trends with dangerous “fads.”
It’s disturbing that newspapers see their use of Twitter as putting them on the cutting-edge of social media. It’s a start but it isn’t the end-all-be-all. Still, there has been a greater willingness to put resources into trends. While it may be too little, too late, it’s encouraging.
4. No budget for research, development or training means most newspapers can’t see what’s coming, don’t have the necessary tools for survival and couldn’t use those new tools effectively anyway.
This is about time. The newsrooms I’ve been in are amazing inefficient places where reporters and editors spend lots of time doing things that don’t end up directly in the paper. Encouraging reporters and editors to spend some of that time experimenting and figuring it out on their own is doable. Reporters should be an inquisitive bunch by nature and should work to learn some of this stuff on their own.
5. Newspapers don’t “own” enough creative technological expertise to constitute a viable tech infrastructure.
J-schools aren’t exactly producing these people, either. Medill is just now getting ready to graduate its first two programmers-turned-journalists. People like Rob Curley, Adrian Holovaty and Matt Waite are rare and expensive. But the hurtin’ that has been put on newspapers means that papers are willing to open themselves up to crazy experimentation (hell, Gazette Communications is letting those Medill students play with its paper, Web sites and television station). That might be enough to attract more of the right kind of people to newspapers.
6. Inertia, uncertainty and toxic paralysis rule most newspaper companies.
Those rule most companies, but it is particularly understandable in an industry that seems to be quickly crumbling. Still, the people coming to newspapers right now are, typically, more passionate. They’ve have to be because they’ve fought though the doom-and-gloom to choose their new career. They sure as hell aren’t doing it for money or job stability.
7. Individual ad-reps still make more money selling print ads than Web ads.
This is a valid complaint; papers have been very slow to switch to a real online ad rate model. (I was shocked — SHOCKED — to hear at a job interview a year ago that the Gannet paper was just switching its online ad rates from a per-month model to a CPM model.) The excuse I’ve heard is it is harder for the ad department to make the switch to online first than it is for the newsroom. Bullshit. Online ads can be sold as reaching the niche audiences that advertisers love. And the ad people need to think hard about what they can slap advertising on (how may newspapers are producing podcasts that aren’t sponsored?).
8. Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency.
While this is mostly true, papers still do have it. How often do you see links to newspaper stories on blogs, Twitter, Digg and the like? All the time. Papers can regain some of their influence when they show a willingness to curate the world for their readers, including linking to the competition.
9. The connection between quality and profitability has been broken irreparably.
Papers have lost sight of quality, but the slashed newsroom sizes actually enhance the chances that newspapers will innovate. They have to reorganize and redefine roles when thousands of jobs are eliminated (at least 11,777 so far this year, Erica Smith figures). Smart reporters and newsrooms are going to be looking for new ways to report and deliver news.
10. Finally: Newspaper companies hate modern journalism.
I’m not sure hate is the right word, but they certainly don’t get the New Media World Order. If I hear “use Facebook” offered as a real solution one more time, I’m going to flip. But while management is generally clueless, there are a lot of sharp people who work at newspapers who will get a chance when everyone else jumps ship because there just ain’t money in news any more.