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?