Rethinking the jobs newspapers do

UPDATE: Thanks for the great response on Twitter and elsewhere. Welcome visitors from Nieman Lab and Media Gazer. Please feel free to add your ideas below in the comments. I do think that print has a purpose. We just need to rethink what that is. Ideally, a refocused print product(s) and digital products with some clear revenue streams would help start rebuilding the business model for newspapers.

It’s time, actually past time, for a radical rethink of newspapers as a product. Mobile apps and mobile content are finally going mainstream with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, and consumers are finding that these do the job better than print. The 2011 State of the News Media study in the US found:

nearly half of all Americans (47%) now get some form of local news on a mobile device. What they turn to most there is news that serves immediate needs – weather, information about restaurants and other local businesses, and traffic. And the move to mobile is only likely to grow. By January 2011, 7% of Americans reported owning some kind of electronic tablet. That was nearly double the number just four months earlier.

Which is why it’s really time to rethink and refocus the print product. In a world where immediate access to news and information is in the pocket of an increasing number of people, what role does a newspaper play? Fortunately, there is a process to think about this.


The Innovator’s Dilemma

I’m a big fan of Steve Yelvington, and I’ve had the honour to meet him and even do some training and speaking with him.  Steve often talks about Clayton Christensen of the Innovator’s Dilemma fame because of the role Christensen’s thinking had in the NewspaperNext project to rethink newspapers. The project found:

  • Great incumbent companies consistently collapse in the face of disruptive technology.
  • Cramming old products into new forms is the wrong approach so new companies with new approaches win.
  • Products succeed by helping customers get done the jobs they already have been trying to do.
  • We can learn to spot opportunities for growth, not just wring our hands over losses.

I was thinking about this when I read a couple of comments about newspapers this past week. First, SEO consultant Malcolm Coles showed the money he used to give The Guardian (my employer up until a year ago) and what he gives The Guardian now. Putting aside the financial analysis for a minute, this struck me (emphasis mine):

I’ve gone from paying £230 a year for weekday news to £4. The collapse in what I pay is because I read most of the news for the next day’s newspaper on the Guardian website on my iPad the evening before. And I read anything new on my iPhone on the way to and from work. The newspaper has nothing in that I need.

Second, David Carr was writing in the New York Times  about executive bonuses at US newspaper giant Gannett while the company asked employees to take a furlough. That aside, he said this (again, emphasis mine):

Gannett’s flagship, USA Today, is a once-robust national newspaper but has lost 20 percent of its circulation in the last three years. About a week ago, I was at the Marriott in Detroit, and as I stepped over the newspaper at my door as I usually do, I then wondered why. It occurred to me that everything in that artifact that would be useful for me — scores from the teams I follow, a brief on big news and a splash of entertainment coverage — I had already learned on my smartphone and tablet before leaving the room. Gannett is aware of the challenge and has moved aggressively into mobile, with six million downloads of its apps, but those marginal revenues will not fill the hole created by challenges to its core business.

For edge cases like me, this has been the case for years, but when media reporters for a major newspaper like the New York Times say that the jobs that newspapers used to do for them they do with something else, the industry has to take notice.


Steve Yelvington has been thinking about this question for years, but the newspaper industry really needs to ask: What jobs does a newspaper do that no other medium does for its readers? I’m not asking about how you value newspapers, but what do you actually use a newspaper for that no other bit of media can do for you? I’m not even asking about your emotional relationship to print. Actually, I think for a lot of people in the newspaper business, their emotional and professional connection to print, is actually getting in the way of answering these questions.

It’s time to radically rethink the newspaper as a product. Where would you start?

To start things off, I’d say cut the breaking (or rather broken because it’s yesterday news) news. Yes, there will be a major story of the day, but we really need to rethink how it’s presented on the front page. How does the front page feel fresh instead of repeating last night’s news? It’s almost becoming laughable how out of date most front pages feel. If you’ve got a big scoop by all means splash it, but don’t just follow yesterday’s news agenda. Next?

17 thoughts on “Rethinking the jobs newspapers do

  1. Good post and I agree with a lot of what you are saying here.

    The industry needs to get past the stage of denial (in some publications, especially local it seems in the UK) and look at the amazing assets and products these media companies could have.

    The newspaper, in both print and digital, still has a massive role to play but that role has changed. The way we as people consume media has changed. In twenty years it will only have changed more. Every newspaper/media company should be now looking to do a comprehensive analysis of their business and their product because simply trying to ‘sell advertising’ on their site or reproduce the same newspaper on an ipad will become old very quickly.

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  4. Great post, Kevin.

    If you dismantle your local newspaper and look objectively at its pieces, journalists are doing lots of things well that haven’t been replicated yet online, because no one else really has the infrastructure in place to produce a very local product.

    Traditional journalists still own local news and local ads. They’ve lost everything else to digital competitors… national and international news, opinion, features, event listings, classifieds and sports. To succeed, journalists must focus on what they do best.

    Here in the U.S., news organizations are experimenting with ways to better display and monetize local advertising, in a Groupon-esque way. At Tackable, we’re building a platform for news organizations that pulls your location and sends you the nearest and latest articles and coupons. It’s a big shift away from traditional, linear, day-old product that arrives on your doorstep.

  5. Luke,

    The market is a bit different here in the UK. (I’m an American who has worked both in local media in the US, but since 1998, I’ve worked primarily for British international news organisations. Since I left The Guardian last year, I now work for an expanding list of global news organisations.) The local and regional market here is in free-fall, and heavy layoffs continue.

    In the US, you’re right. Local newspapers have been doing relatively well. It was the major metros that have taken the big hit the last 5-6 years. Most of the issues with local newspapers in the US are down to the indebtedness of their parent companies. They still make money, just not enough money to support their debt burdens.

    However, you have AOL’s Patch trying to move into local, and I have to say that even I was surprised the extent to which US readers are getting local information via mobile, but then outside of the US, you constantly here the slightly outdated theme of the US being a mobile backwater. That’s increasingly not the case.

    I’ll check out Tackable. Thanks for the comment.

  6. One of the most challenging things is that in order to change, legacy media needs to stop doing some of what its used to doing in order to focus on the future. But if what you are used to doing is still making money, its a hard job to decide to put that aside to focus on something that might not, especially if you have shareholders breathing down your neck.
    The whole ‘i’ project by the Independent has been quite interesting. I’m not up to speed on how well it’s been doing but it relies on a ‘quality snippets’ approach. Isn’t this what The Week does very well too on a curation basis, which it charges for?

  7. Couple things. The claim that “nearly half of all Americans (47%) now get some form of local news on a mobile device” seems pretty dubious to me. I think they’re taking liberty with the term “news” in that stat. Young people aren’t checking news, they’re on facebook. And older adults, who consume the most news, are not heavy smart phone users.

    Second, I don’t think news media need to re-invent themselves at all. They need to deliver the same content they always have, with an emphasis on local in-depth news, across different platforms. This discussion is being slightly overblown, particularly across the blog community (due to self-interest maybe?).

    Yes, the revenue stream is much different, and more challenging as news moves away from print. But most advertising is local, and these advertisers still need to reach their audience. They’ll continue to do that, and local newspapers will continue to get the lions share of those dollars, whether in print, mobile or web.

  8. Nina,

    I agree that newspapers are in a very difficult position. Print still brings in the bulk of revenues but also constitutes the bulk of costs. Digital revenue is rising but still does not bring enough money to make up for the decline in print revenue. Broadly what I’m advocating is a review of products with some revenue streams attached to each product. The Indy’s ‘i’ is doing well in terms of growing circulation, which few papers can say in the current market.

    However, the real issue isn’t just about circulation, uniques and revenue, the real issues are about sustainable businesses. Revenues don’t mean much if they don’t cover your costs.

    Scott, I thought about describing your position as optimistic but decided to call a spade a spade and describe it as complacent, and I’m not approaching this from the position of a blogger but rather as a journalist who took a buyout last year from a major international news organisation, The Guardian. The buyout was a good opportunity for me, and my work with a growing list of news organisations around the world has actually provided a more secure financial footing for me and my wife.

    As I’ve said, there are differences in the US and UK newspaper markets. The local market in the UK is in free fall. As for the Guardian, it had a local business, but after revenue dropped 85% YoY in 08-09, it sold it for a rather paltry sum (£7m in cash and release from a £35m printing contract). Yes, that was a horrific recession, but when circulation continues to decline, there comes a point where doing what you’ve always done doesn’t cut it. The national titles in the UK are seeing between a 7-11% Y0Y decline in circulation.

    Advertisers still need to reach an audience. However, if your print product reaches fewer and fewer of their customers, when do they decide to desert print? As former newspaperman Alan Mutter noted recently, based on the amount of time audiences in the US spend with newspapers, they get three times “too many” ad dollars. That won’t last forever.

  9. Newspapers have got it all. They just aren’t using what they have.

    They have the best reporters and the most in any given market or beat. Yet they have websites that are just a rehash of their print stuff.

    Their reporters are out there anyway. Why not have them use small video cameras, and edit pieces alongside their print work? Why not have a podcast or vodcast where reporters who have investigated whatever are interviewed on a newspaper channel?

    It would all mean new and better revenue streams, and wouldn’t cost much to set-up. And would certainly add value competing against both radio and TV.

    I have a soft-patent on the idea, which I am willing to sell for $300 million. You are welcome.

  10. Kevin,

    Great post, as always – and no disagreements with the analysis. I’d certainly start with the idea that most people already know the news of the day, so you shouldn’t be splashing the front page with it – unless of course you have something value-added. The Wall Street Journal’s What’s News column on its front is an example of how this can be done: Just give summaries of the news on page one with the real real estate given over to value-added stories.

    That said, I think you’re really posing two questions here: One is what should a legacy news organization do, given that most of its revenue still comes from print advertising? As Clay Christensen noted matter-of-factly, almost no company in that situation ever comes out alive. The second is, what kind of product would you create if you could start from scratch, even if you insisted that there had to be a print component to it? That’s a very different question, and you can see how some people like Politico have leveraged their online brand to build print franchises to tap into higher-margin advertising.

    So to more directly speak to your question: What core advantages does paper have as a medium over various forms of digital? It’s (relatively) cheap, disposable, easily portable, easy-to-read and always on. The scary thought is that many mobile, digital and e-ink devices have nearly the same advantages already. Although I do think there are any number of niche publications that can work in print; and that there’s probably more than a few years of life left in traditional general papers.

    But I’d pose the broader question: We should rethink the job journalism does. Traditionally, we’ve provided a range of functions: Witnessing, as a conduit for information, a watchdog role, analysis, commentary, building community, etc. Many of those are better done by others now – eg, witnessing via twitter, building community via Facebook. What should our role be?


  11. Kevin, Appreciate the example at the Guardian, but the majority of local US Newspapers are doing quite well. There is a very stark division between major metro newspapers and the ones serving local communities. I think it’s important to draw that distinction instead of painting with such a broad brush that newsprint is dead.

    As for Alan Mutter’s article, I read it the day it came out and really think it’s too shallow to be helpful. “Mindshare” is a very poor measure. Equating time spend starting at something to how effective it is doesn’t seem useful.
    People spend the most time “engaged” with TV according to his graph, but with fragmentation of audience and the proliferation of DVR’s and other avoidance devices, judging it solely on time spent is clearly inaccurate.
    I believe the same can be said with Newspaper. A 50 year old woman who reads the paper for 10 minutes every morning is much more valuable to a local furniture store than a 16 year old who spends 3 hours on their phone.
    It’s all about context, and the nuances are being lost in the rush to throw another shovel full of dirt on newspapers.

  12. Scott,

    I know the NAA figures that showed that local newspapers in the US fared relatively well in the US, and as I said, there are major differences in the UK market versus the US market. Also, as I said, many of the problems of the US newspaper groups have little to do with returns and more to do with indebtedness brought about credit-fuelled consolidation as major news groups tried to maintain Apple-esque (20%+) margins through scale.

    I’d also suggest that you re-read the post. I’m not throwing “another shovel full of dirt on newspapers”, and I think in the near-term, sharpening the print and digital products (especially the commercial focus of digital products) is the way forward for newspapers.

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  15. I suspect Newsppers need to ask themselves one very simple question: What if Journalism is the real reason Newspapers are dying (See

    I say that becuase I suspect the newspapers are in deep trouble simply because they fell into the trap some time back of thinking they were in the business of journalism rather than being the business of facilitating commerce.

    I say that becuase a century ago newspapers where the undisputed Find Me, Find You and Let’s Exchange deal space of the industrial age.

    Now that the market is online searching for real time solutions to the commercial realitites for buyers finding sellers and sellers finding buyers the newspapers have discovered that their core product is neither sticky or relevent in an age hyper media.

    As Groupon, ebay and all those classified advertising engines have proven over the past decade. You don’t need content as a hook to sell advertising when there is an abundance of free market information waiting to be Googled.

    Put very simply, and in all honesty quite sadly, the simple turth is for Newspapers to survive in an online world they need to make Journalism periferal to their business model and get back to focusing on where the money is made. ie. Helping the market to Find Me, Find You and make the Exchange.

    If you are interested in reading an expanded version of these ideas you’ll find it here…

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