Adapt or Die
As newspaper companies confront a challenging future, they are increasingly viewing their trademark print product as the engine driving a diverse “portfolio” that embraces other “platforms” such as Web sites and niche publications. Is this a strategy for survival?
By Rachel Smolkin
For years, newspapers have treated innovation like a trip to the dentist — a torture to be endured, not encouraged. True, newspapers finally got around to adding color. They shrank stories, hoping that pithier, flashier fare would help attract young people who don't like to read. They spruced up the front page by sprinkling uplifting, maudlin or otherwise titillating features amid the news. But bold new thinking about the newspaper and a world of opportunities beyond it? Please. Tell the dentist to add a veneer and leave the rotting core alone.
Now that's all changing, of necessity. Circulation is falling; newsprint costs are rising; retail, auto and movie advertising is slumping; classified advertising is available free on craigslist and other online venues. Wall Street's dissatisfaction with newspapers boiled over in November, when money manager and Knight Ridder shareholder Bruce S. Sherman forced the company to put itself up for sale.
"You look at the choices that face journalists today," says Howard Weaver, vice president for news at McClatchy, the Sacramento-based newspaper chain that's buying Knight Ridder. "You can give up, you can hunker down and bleed, or you can fight back. Well, I want to fight back."
At McClatchy and other major newspaper companies, that battle is taking shape as a willingness to experiment with form. An emerging weltanschauung sees newspapers as the engine driving a myriad of products — from Web sites to free commuter tabloids to Spanish-language publications — that can lure additional audience (those folks we used to call readers) and reinvigorate listless advertising.
Such thinking is evolutionary. There has been no easy epiphany, no "EUREKA! THE ANSWER TO MY PROBLEMS IS TO TRANSFORM MY NEWSPAPER INTO A MULTI-PLATFORM PORTFOLIO!" But the multiplatform mantra is gaining popularity industry-wide, propelled by a conviction that a myopic view of newspapers simply won't work in a fast-changing world.
Newspapers have not exactly been leaders in this tech-driven landscape. In the late 1990s, they were tentatively dipping their toes into the chilly rapids of cyberspace (see "Fear.com," June 1999); years later, they still can't quite figure out what to do with the Web or how to make money off the thing. But, finally, newspapers are starting to see the Internet as central to their future. In 2005, newspaper Internet advertising topped $2 billion for the first time, a 31 percent increase over 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Unique visitors to newspaper Web sites jumped 21 percent from January 2005 to December 2005.
"I think we were slow to catch on," says Jay Smith, president of Cox Newspapers, a chain of 17 daily and 25 non-daily newspapers. In Atlanta, where Cox is headquartered, its portfolio includes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; an array of Web sites (among them ajc.com, ajccars.com, ajcjobs.com and ajchomefinder.com); two Spanish-language weeklies; and, as of May, Skirt! a free monthly magazine targeted at women. "I think it's perfectly natural to protect what you have, to think what you have is the only thing that people want," Smith says. "You look back to the year 2000, and I don't know that newspapers ever had a better year financially. Those are the times that can lull you into a sense of complacency. What we've discovered a full five, six years later is that that world doesn't exist anymore."
Smith is the immediate past chairman of the NAA, which describes the emerging philosophy in earnest language in "The Source: Newspapers by the Numbers", a thumbnail sketch of the changing $59 billion industry. Old-school newspaper aficionados should bring along their decoders: instead of stories and readers, we now have "content" and "audience"; newspapers and their sister publications are "products" that together create a "portfolio." And news itself is passé: We're in the information business now.
"The key to the future of newspapers is the effort to build a broad portfolio of products around the core product, the traditional newspaper, and to connect with both general and targeted audiences ," "The Source" declares with generous use of boldface. "Newspapers across the country have established their presence on the Web and are aggressively developing additional online products. They are launching niche publications and reaching out to new audiences, particularly minorities. It's all part of a critical transformation : from newspaper companies to information companies."
Although "convergence" across newspapers, TV and radio has been a cherished industry buzzword for years, the portfolio approach focuses primarily on the Internet and print rather than on traditional radio and television (one exception is the Washington Post, which launched programming on a local radio station in March). Federal Communications Commission rules bar newspapers from owning broadcast stations in the same market (some arrangements are grandfathered in), and even if they could, TV and radio face the same competitive pressures and declining audiences that newspapers do. Instead, many newspapers are enthusiastically adding new audio and video options to their Web sites, from newscasts to stories to commentary.
Last September, the American Press Institute launched a yearlong initiative dubbed Newspaper Next aimed at offering newspaper leaders some guidance in this brave new world. The Newspaper Next team is working with Innosight LLC, a consulting group run by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert on how established industries get overtaken by "disruptive innovation."
Stephen Gray, managing director of Newspaper Next, says the newspaper industry is exhibiting classic signs of an industry shaken by seismic changes, often competition from new technologies. "The newspaper industry, like others that have experienced this problem, needs to learn some quite counterintuitive ways of responding," he says. "One of the things we need to be clear about in our project is the focus of Newspaper Next is how to create innovation outside of our core product. We have as an industry really little record of innovation."
Gray agrees that newspaper leaders are shifting their approach, and he believes the pace of change is quickening. "There's definitely an increased tempo," he says. "I think the Knight Ridder tragedy, if you can use that word, is one of the things that accelerated it. People looked at it and said, 'If it can happen to Knight Ridder, I better get moving.' Knight Ridder itself had a number of interesting things going on, but it takes time to get these new things moving to the point that they're generating significant revenue."
And as Bruce Sherman demonstrated so chillingly (see "Sherman's March," February/March), shareholders may not be willing to wait much longer while newspapers find their footing. "Seeing that happen was just a real wake-up call not only to publicly traded companies but even to privately held companies," Gray says. "I'd say broadly across the industry, my impression is that people came away from it thinking, 'We have to move faster. The wolf is closer to our heels than we thought.'"
Ken Marlin is managing partner of Marlin & Associates, a New York investment banking firm that specializes in media and technology deals. He compares newspapers' predicament to the demise of the slide rule: "[O]ne of the fundamental mistakes that a lot of slide rule manufacturers made was in thinking that people wanted slide rules instead of calculations. The slide rule world got wiped out virtually overnight by electronic calculators." Marlin says his analogy is imperfect, because newspapers are not in imminent danger of getting wiped out; he expects them to be around 10 years from now. But the "newspaper companies, like the slide rule manufacturers, have to either adapt to the new economics or die."
To adapt, newspapers are, yes, innovating.
At Studio 55, "host" Denise Spidle credits both naplesnews.com and the Naples Daily News of Florida during her perky, 15-minute newscast. Such rigorous attribution is not only transparent journalism but also effective marketing: Studio 55 is a video newscast, or "vodcast," produced by E.W. Scripps' Naples Daily News.
"Potentially we have greater reach with the vodcast than any other product we've ever done," says President and Publisher John Fish. "The vodcast, from the advertisers' standpoint, is the best multimedia buy in our area." Spidle's newscast is posted on naplesnews.com each weekday at 4 p.m. and updated at 6 p.m.; it also airs on the local Comcast cable channel. Sponsors' 30-second spots appear in both formats. The 69,456-circulation Naples Daily News lists sponsors in daily promotions of the vodcast in the paper, and an assortment of specialty publications, including a Spanish-language weekly and five magazines, promote the vodcast and its sponsors as well.
Studio 55 was born April 3 into a local broadcast vacuum. Although Fort Myers, 30 miles to the north, boasts four TV stations, none is based in Naples, the county seat of fast-growing and affluent Collier County. Fish, who believes video will play an important role in newspapers' future, saw an opportunity. "I think that the competitive environment that we all find ourselves in, combined with the economic challenges that we all face, requires that we look at our business in different ways than we have in the past," he says.
During his year and a half as publisher, Fish has tripled the Daily News' new-media team to 30 people, including four videographers who produce news and commercials, and has overseen the creation of a broadcast studio in a building next door to the newsroom. In October, the new-media team launched a podcast that listeners can access on their computers or download onto their iPods each morning. Like the vodcast, the podcast showcases the newspapers' reporters and their work. "I've told our staff my goal is to produce the very best podcast and the very best vodcast of any paper in the country," says Fish, who expects revenue from the new-media ventures to quadruple from the end of 2004 to this year. "Not only do we want to be the best new-media operation in the country for any paper our size, we also want to be the most profitable."
Gannett, the nation's highest-circulation newspaper chain, has moved aggressively during the last six or seven years to develop a portfolio of "niche content offerings," which totaled 1,006 in mid-April. These include Spanish-language weeklies, coupon books, 10 weekly city magazines aimed at young people and "ZIP code" magazines written for and about residents of specific ZIP codes. Many of the non-daily publications rely heavily on calendar information detailing local happenings.
"What the niche publications do is reach hard-to-get-to audiences for us traditionally, so it provides a ready vehicle for advertisers that in many cases we haven't had before," says Sue Clark-Johnson, president of Gannett's newspaper division. As one example, she cites a weekly tab aimed at young women in Phoenix that fills a void in coverage of Southwest fashion. It's included as an insert in the Arizona Republic in some areas and also is distributed at outlets frequented by the targeted audience. The stories, produced by the newspaper's staff, are all local: The tab "does not have fur coats and boots in the August issue," Clark-Johnson notes. It includes ads from local bead stores and boutiques that have never advertised in the Arizona Republic.
Even the Associated Press, long known for its meat-and-potatoes approach to news, is spicing up its menu to serve its clients better in this changing world. "Wherever newspapers go, we want to be in a position to provide them what they need," says AP President and CEO Tom Curley. He says performing well on breaking news remains the AP's top priority, but he's trying to add more enterprise and contextual coverage. "We want to have ownership of the story for longer than the first few hours."
So the AP offers blogs and podcasts. On March 1, it started the AP Online Video Network, which now produces about 40 stories a day in video form (Microsoft provides the ad support and the video player). For its debut, the video network provided coverage of New Orleans cleaning up from its first Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina. On April 26, story choices included rising gas prices and White House political adviser Karl Rove testifying before a grand jury for the fifth time. (To check out how the AP videos are used, try chron.com or cleveland.com and look under "News Video"; they are also available on other newspaper and radio Web sites.)
Last fall, the AP also joined the stampede to lasso elusive young readers, launching asap (pronounced a-s-a-p) to help entertain the under-35 crowd. In late April, asap's contributions included a story about adults racing plastic tricycles down San Francisco's "crookedest" street and a first-person commentary from Angie Wagner, the AP's Western regional writer and a stressed-out, sleep-deprived mother of two.
Busy moms also are a focus at the Dallas Morning News, a Belo paper that is fashioning an online, one-stop resource with local "mom-tested" recommendations on all things parenting, from summer camps to pediatricians to academic tutors. The early idea for the Master Mom project is to create a rating system similar to the reader feedback averages on Amazon.com. The format is still taking shape. Would it be best to segment subjects by neighborhood in a city as a large as Dallas? Should activities be subdivided by gender and age?
"The idea was really driven from kind of extending our in-depth local coverage to meet audience needs," says Jiggs Foster, the paper's marketing director. Staff asked, "What's a need that's unmet in the Dallas marketplace that we can fulfill?... What is the job that moms need done that's not currently being met by anybody else?"
API's Newspaper Next is providing free consulting for the Master Mom project, and these are exactly the kinds of questions that Gray and his team want newspapers to pose. Why? Because the slide rule analogy, while instructive, overlooks one of the challenges newspapers face: Sometimes competitors aren't all that obvious. Just as the wolf tricked Little Red Riding Hood by donning her grandmother's cap and nightgown, so have threats at times seemed innocuous, and certainly irrelevant, to the core business of newspapers.
Take craigslist, the community space for classifieds from housing to jobs to personals. "That doesn't even look to us like it has anything to do with newspapers when it comes on the scene, and probably didn't to Craig Newmark, either," Gray says. (Newmark, who started craigslist in 1995, agrees. "I didn't have a clue" about his site's impact on the industry, he says. "The effect we've had on news has been greatly exaggerated, although," he jokes, "it makes a better story that way.")
Newmark "didn't think of himself as being in the newspaper industry," Gray continues. "He looked at the market and said, 'There are a bunch of people here with jobs they'd like to get done... I'll just make this and see what happens.' In the early stages, any newspaper person would have looked at it and said, 'Well, that's interesting, but it doesn't have anything to do with me.' Pretty soon, in some markets, you're seeing 50,000 to 100,000 items advertised... That thing that didn't look initially like it had anything to do with [newspapers] worked its way into our space."
To help newspapers spot new opportunities in a changing marketplace, Gray and the Innosight consultants suggest this approach: "People are trying to get certain information jobs done in their lives," he says. "What are those jobs? What jobs are very important to them and occur frequently, and they're really frustrated about the solutions available to them?" As the Morning News team explores its mom-oriented venture, "they're not even thinking about whether [the moms] read a newspaper," Gray adds. "It's not really relevant. They're saying, 'We think we can build a significant audience that we know would be of interest to advertisers.'"
Will any of this work? Will the new print publications and Internet initiatives help convince Wall Street that newspapers have a plan for the future other than incessant cost-cutting?
"I do think that newspapers have a strong future, and it lies in the fact that they will be or are the last mass medium in each local market," says Gary Pruitt, the chairman and CEO of McClatchy, which is gambling $6.5 billion — $4.5 billion plus another $2 billion in assumed debt — on newspapers' future to buy Knight Ridder. (McClatchy is selling 12 Knight Ridder papers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News.) "That's a good, strong position to be in because we're holding onto our market better than our local competition. Before, that used to be enough. But it's only the beginning now. It's no longer sufficient just to have that core daily newspaper; instead, we need to leverage off of it this whole portfolio of products, including, and most importantly, the leading local Internet site."
In the short run, Pruitt, who outlined the newspaper-as-engine strategy in a March 16 Wall Street Journal commentary, thinks newspaper companies must do a better job of explaining this strategy to investors. "The first thing we need to communicate is that newspapers are strong and viable and have good futures, because I think they are consistently underestimated," he says. "Secondarily, and without taking anything away from the first point, also articulating that we are not just a newspaper, that in each market we're the leading local media company, the leading local Internet company," capable of delivering news continuously. In the long term, he adds, "the proof will be in performance. We're just going to have to deliver."
Of course, newspapers have been strong performers for a long time — and that's part of the problem, says Conrad Fink, a professor of newspaper management and strategy at the University of Georgia. In 2004, he says, profits of publicly owned newspaper companies averaged about 20 percent, compared with an average 11 percent for Fortune 500 companies. "We've been hugely profitable in the past, and Wall Street only knows one mantra: 'More please, more,'" says Fink, a former Associated Press vice president. He thinks Sherman's success at strong-arming Knight Ridder shows "we damn well have got severe problems with investors who in my opinion are completely unreasonable. I do not see that pressure lessening unless we make some kind of change in investor psychology, which is, of course, a hell of a challenge."
And because newspapers are reacting to a difficult economic climate, they don't have the luxury of gently reeducating sanguine investors; instead, they're preoccupied with trying to keep revenue and profits from sinking further. Edward Atorino, a media analyst at the New York-based brokerage firm Benchmark Co., says newspapers are trying to change their business plans "in the midst of a very tough advertising environment." Although ad revenue rose slightly in 2005, it was up less than expected, he says, and 2006 is off to a disappointing start. "I think they're doing what they can do. It's hard to turn businesses around on a dime... The business literally fell out of bed a couple years ago, and they reacted slowly to the Internet."
When newspapers did react to the Web, most gave news away free, turning the journalism business into a giant philanthropy. "Should they have charged for that like Dow Jones did? It's too late now," Atorino says. "They're trying to play catch-up, and that's a tough game."
They're also trying to figure out exactly what their mission is in this audience-driven, multiplatform era. Esther Dyson, editor of Release 1.0, a technology newsletter at CNET Networks, says newspaper companies need to be clear about what they're trying to accomplish, and they need to do it well. "Are you a media company, tailoring content to reach an audience and sell ads? Or are you a journalistic enterprise, focused on finding out and publicizing important truths? If you don't really know what you're trying to do, then you keep disappointing people who think they understand," she says.
"The whole company doesn't need to do the same thing, but the parts need to understand" their role and have a business model that supports it. So far, she says of newspaper companies' attempts to capitalize on the Web, niche publications and other potential moneymakers, "most of them are not crisp enough about it."
What, for example, should papers do with their Web sites? Post all the newspaper stories, toss in some breaking news and spruce it up with a few blogs and podcasts? Try something innovative and completely different from news as we know it, like the Master Mom project? How should they persuade existing advertisers to come aboard their Web sites, and attract new advertisers as well?
"From my perspective, newspapers ain't doing too bad on the Internet," says Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, a media research and consulting firm that tracks Internet advertising revenues for local Web sites. He says papers have used the last 10 years to bring their print advertisers online, and the next 10 will be critical to see if papers can expand that ad base and transform their Internet sites into viable businesses in their own right.
Borrell says newspapers should start by relaxing a little, and realize that readers still prefer the printed paper for local news. "People don't go to the Internet in huge droves for local school board news or local crime news," he says. "I think [newspapers] should stop giving that away on the Internet."
But he also believes newspapers need to give their Web operations some independence. If newspaper companies hope to survive, he says, they have to realize the Internet is a distinct medium, and the newspaper needs a separate set of very strong managers who can't be distracted by what's going on online. "They have it married too much in their minds. The newspaper and online in their minds are Siamese twins."
Borrell suggests thinking of newspaper Web sites in part as a general store for local commerce, and recommends boston.com (run by the Boston Globe), triangle.com (Raleigh's News & Observer) and HamptonRoads.com (Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot) as fine examples of this approach. HamptonRoads.com includes stories, but the information-packed site doesn't look like a newspaper. It features top-rated local restaurants, daily polls (one in late April asked visitors if Hampton Roads' economy is too dependent on the military; another asked who should get the next "American Idol" boot), a stock market update and a local marketplace "DealSpotter" for shoppers, subdivided into categories such as automotive, home and garden, and apparel and jewelry.
Investment banker Ken Marlin also warns against simply hurling the print edition into cyberspace. "It's not good enough to take what you have in print form and put it up on the Web," he says. "You have to take advantage of what the new medium offers and what the new medium allows you to do." While a newspaper might list Italian restaurants in a neighborhood, its Web site could allow readers to say, "I'm standing on a corner. Tell me the inexpensive Italian restaurants within half a mile or so and book a reservation."
The architects of the multiplatform portfolios must think globally, paying attention to viable business models and detailed audience research and direct-mail programs for advertisers. But at a Newspaper Next symposium in Washington, D.C., in early February, the first day of a provocative conference about the future of newspapers didn't include a single word about watchdog journalism or investigative reporting.
Protecting the unique work that newspapers do will be critical to preserving their value. Doing so will not be easy. The shifting business model is ushering in dramatic changes for print journalists, making significant demands on their time, compelling new skills and requiring a new way of thinking about their jobs.
At the Miami Herald in early April, Executive Editor Tom Fiedler installed a sports-bar-size, flat-screen monitor outside the newsroom that displays and continuously refreshes MiamiHerald.com. The homepage is the first thing journalists see when they step off the fifth-floor elevators; newspaper racks aren't visible until they turn left into the newsroom.
Fiedler followed up this bit of symbolism with an April 12 staff memo laying bare the ramifications of the multiplatform shift on the newsroom itself. "We are beyond being satisfied with incremental change and giving polite head nods toward other media platforms," Fielder wrote in the memo, which was quickly posted and debated on Jim Romenesko's media blog. "We are going to execute fundamental restructuring to support that pledge. Every job in the newsroom — EVERY JOB — is going to be redefined to include a web responsibility and, if appropriate, radio. For news gatherers, this means posting everything we can as soon as we can. It means using the web site to its fullest potential for text, audio and video. We'll come to appreciate that MiamiHerald.com is not an appendage of the newsroom; it's a fundamental product of the newsroom."
In an interview two days later, Fiedler said he wants to structure the newsroom toward delivering news when journalists have it, not toward delivering a morning newspaper. "We're way too comfortable thinking of ourselves as newspaper people," he says. "We've got to take a step back and shake ourselves loose of that." He envisions adding a continuous news desk to oversee stories for the Web and designating a breaking news editor with the authority to dispatch reporters to cover news live, much as TV news crews do. He expects the newspaper itself will "take on a more historic feel: 'For the record, this is what's happening.'"
What will all these new obligations mean for the thorough, in-depth reporting that separates newspapers from their competitors? Will reporters' responsibilities to write for the Web mean they simply don't have time to make that extra call to the mayor, or the police chief, or the local gadfly — time-consuming reporting that adds nuance to stories and sometimes changes their direction entirely? "That's a challenge," Fiedler says. "I'm determined to overcome that challenge."
In both his memo and in the interview, Fiedler emphasized that he doesn't want to "bleed the newspaper" to build up the Web site. He says he's looking into adding a few newsroom positions and realizes the paper probably will need to drop some mundane elements, such as stock tables. "The first concern that reporters have is, 'Are you in effect going to turn me into a wire service reporter?'" Fiedler says. "One reporter asked, 'Does this mean we're going to have [story] quotas?' That's not at all what I'm thinking, and I don't believe that's necessary."
Fiedler also aims to steer clear of the If-It-Bleeds-It-Leads mentality so prevalent in local TV news. "One of the things I want to avoid is the cheapest and simplest kind of news that we could feed to the Web page and call it continuous news," such as covering "anything with yellow police tape around it," Fiedler says. "I really want us to do the kind of journalism that distinguishes us."
The Miami Herald is among the Knight Ridder papers that McClatchy plans to keep, but when Fiedler issued his memo, he couldn't discuss newsroom changes with his new bosses because the sale was pending. (The Justice Department has since changed its regulations to allow such conversations, he says.) While the ownership change introduced "a bit of an X factor for us here and for me," Fiedler said in the interview that he had "to believe that this is a direction that they would want us to move in also."
He's right, if Gary Pruitt's comments are any indication. Pruitt says the multiplatform model demands more from print journalists because it puts them back in the business of breaking news. "Everything becomes harder for everybody," Pruitt says. He thinks the best solution is a continuous news desk in the newsroom that focuses on breaking news. "But then of course there are others doing in-depth, investigative pieces," he says. "This is not mutually exclusive. We're going to have to do all of it. We can't abandon one for the other, because that will weaken the core newspaper."
McClatchy's 125,228-circulation News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, has established a continuous news desk that is staffed beginning at 6 a.m. and focuses on weather and traffic for early drive-time reports in addition to breaking news. The paper's Web site (thenewstribune.com) offers a potpourri of blogs on subjects including sports, real estate, food and fly-fishing, and will soon add a blog on military affairs and a guide to local online sites. Reporters and photographers also use podcasts to provide behind-the-scene glimpses into their newsgathering.
At the Washington Post, journalists routinely feed washingtonpost.com with stories, online chats and blogs. They appear on TV news shows and on Washington Post Radio, an AM-FM station launched March 30 that's programmed mainly by the Post and owned by Bonneville International Corp. "The jobs are becoming more versatile," Post Publisher and CEO Bo Jones says of his journalists. (The paper's Guild chapter, unhappy that some reporters aren't getting paid for the increased workload, in April filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.) Jones, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Managing Editor Philip Bennett are looking at how changes to the newsroom's organizational structure could better serve the Web as well as the paper. "You don't necessarily have to organize all your newsroom staff along sections anymore," says Jones, who is also chairman of the NAA. "The sections that run off the presses aren't always relevant to the Web."
One sure sign that we're in a very different world: Downie, who joined the Post as a summer intern in 1964 and personifies the traditional newspaperman, recently told his staff that the Post needs to become "platform-agnostic." (Washington City Paper reported this comment and added, "When your 63-year-old editor starts sounding like Esther Dyson, you know your newsroom is changing.") Downie talks enthusiastically about the Post's continuous news desk and about working with the Post Co.'s Spanish-language paper, El Tiempo Latino, to translate more Post stories into Spanish. A few Post reporters have started using video cameras to capture scenes for washingtonpost.com. Downie sees that practice expanding "entirely on a voluntary basis" in the future.
The Post, like the rest of the industry, has not been immune to cutbacks. On March 10, the company announced that it would eliminate about 80 full-time newsroom positions over the next year — about 9 percent of its news staff — through attrition and by offering early retirement. Asked if a willingness to serve the Post's various platforms helps preserve newsroom slots that might otherwise be lost as circulation declines, Downie says, "In a general sense that might be the case, but not directly; there's no direct quid pro quo." But he also says, "Certainly the fact that we are producing content now for many different platforms means that dollars that are spent in the newsroom" go further.
Philip Meyer, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age," is dismayed that newspapers are increasing workloads instead of increasing staff and ignoring what he sees as an opportunity to invest in their futures. "There's a lot more activity on the Internet sites. I'm not sure that's gotten to the point of creating new content, or new resources are being thrown into it," he says. Instead, "editors and reporters are supposed to serve the Internet during their coffee breaks."
Will the multiplatform approach inevitably lead us to abandon printed newspapers? In Meyer's view, it is an excellent transitional model — newspaper readers, like newspaper journalists, hate rapid change — but not an end point. He says the Internet offers a chance to trade the high costs of ink on paper for a free distribution system.
"They should start phasing out of it," Meyer, a newspaper veteran, says of the traditional print version. "I think the newspaper will survive in some form, possibly less than daily. I think people will still want a print product to carry around with them, but it might be a weekend product." Maybe, Meyer suggests, readers could pick up newspapers of the future at the train station on their way to work, eliminating home-delivery costs.
"But the key to it is a stronger journalistic product...and this is what the industry is missing right now," Meyer says. "Instead, they're doing the opposite, trying to save their way to prosperity by cutting back on the product. If they don't take advantage of this opportunity, somebody else is going to do it for them."
A surprisingly similar take on newspapers' future comes from a man with no journalism background but a strong sense of the Internet's possibilities. "I would be doing whatever I could to make the online version of the site increasingly compelling; I would be engaging the community more; I would be investigating delivery of news to mobile devices, particularly cell phones, and paying a lot of attention to, let's call them electronic ink technologies, including the scrollable displays from companies like Philips and HP," says craigslist's Craig Newmark. "I love the use of paper, but it's expensive to buy, it's expensive to print, and it's expensive to deliver."
Newmark reads the print version of the San Francisco Chronicle every day, and he's also started reading the New York Times more frequently "in part to make Arthur happy" (that would be Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.). He's a fan of bloggers and citizen journalism, but he also describes professional journalism as "very strong. It involves serious editing, fact-checking, that kind of thing, and I think that will be the strength that newspapers bring to their electronic media. I do see video and the written word all converging, delivered electronically, with paper more of an occasional luxury item," Newmark says, cheerfully advising anybody listening to take his views with a large grain of salt.
But McClatchy's Pruitt doesn't foresee old-fashioned newspapers disappearing anytime soon. "It is likely that circulation will decline slowly over time, as more audiences become comfortable with the Internet, but the newspaper will remain viable as print on paper for as far out as we can project at McClatchy," he says. "Half the people in the United States still read a daily newspaper, and that number is not declining quickly."
As Pruitt sees it, the multiplatform approach is a way to protect newspapers, not bury them. "Small niche products or direct-mail programs may seem nitty-gritty or competing at the low end, but it's that kind of business activity that will sustain the high-end journalism in the core," he says. "I think if you don't create this portfolio of products, you're probably destined to lose share and be a smaller economic entity, which long-term will hurt the potential of what the newspaper and the journalism can be. Can it be a distraction? Of course, if you let it be. But it can also be the engine that can drive success."
Cox's Jay Smith sees this tumultuous period of transformation as an opportunity for a newspaper renaissance. "Nothing can motivate you like tough times, but we've also gotten beyond some of our rigid thinking about what we do and how we must do it," he says. "I don't think I've ever seen a more open and receptive time in newspapers in the last 40 years."
And Gray, of Newspaper Next, puts the case for innovation this way: "If someone is not reading a newspaper or not reading a Web site, how are you fulfilling your civic mission? You've got to have some kind of connection with people in order to fulfill your civic mission. It's up to you to figure out the right mix. I say let's start the products, let's build the audiences, let's attract the advertisers, and let's remember who we are."
And who, exactly, are we? In an era when even Len Downie touts platform agnosticism, old newspaper mores are clearly disappearing. What will replace them? How will we guard newspapers' spirit: their gift for knitting together disparate threads of a community rather than pandering to divergent demographics, ages and interests; their commitment to watchdog journalism and to holding the powerful accountable; their lofty standards of dogged fact-finding and tireless digging?
There's a good reason journalists are so wary of innovation. Daring new experiments intended to save newspapers must not destroy their souls. They must not turn print journalists into spinning tops, whirling from podcasts to vodcasts to radio appearances to online chats to blogging, then clutching their video cameras as they rush to an assignment and, if they get a free second, trying to squeeze in a little reporting.
It's worth noting — and a hopeful sign — that the Pulitzer Prizes this year honored work that shows newspapers at their finest and most traditional: the Washington Post's Dana Priest for exposing the CIA's network of secret prisons abroad; the New York Times' James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for revealing the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping; Copley News Service and the company's San Diego Union-Tribune for toppling a corrupt congressman; and the staffs at New Orleans' Times-Picayune and Gulfport, Mississippi's Sun Herald for valiant reporting on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, when their devastated communities needed them most.
If newspapers abandon the relentless reporting that makes them special, then their future won't be worth protecting, in any form. ###