While watching newspapers die, only one question comes to me: Who were we trying to impress? Was it the readers, the advertisers, ourselves, the people who give out awards, or were newspapers only trying to impress each other? I think it may be the last one, and our success at that may have been our downfall.
You'd think any business plan would have at its core making an impression on the people who pay for the product, but it hasn't ever been the case with newspapers.
In 1970, my editor told me, "We have to get young people to read the paper." So we did everything we could to get young people to buy the paper. We started with lists of bars, lists of bands and how you can spend your weekend in ignorant bliss. It meant nothing to the people who bought the paper, and young people continued not to read.
In 2007, my editor told me, "We have to get young people to read the paper." We did everything we could to that end. We started with lists of bars and bands.
My contention: Young people have never read the local newspaper. They begin needing local information when they get married, their children go to school, they have to buy a home, and they need to know what is going on locally.
Older people have always, in my lifetime, been the people who support local newspapers. So when we pandered to young people with lists of bars, bands, fashions and the newest garbage, to the detriment of local news, we alienated the one group of people who read newspapers, and they cancelled their subscriptions.
So we didn't impress our subscribers, and we certainly haven't been trying to impress advertisers. We shouldn't pander to them, but why shouldn't we care what they do? Why can't we add local solar power companies to stories about the environment? Why quote some "expert" from Wyoming when we are selling a paper in Connecticut and we have advertisers who are just as expert who buy an ad once in awhile?
So, if not the advertisers or subscribers, who is it we were trying to impress? Newspapers have always been trying to do one thing: Impress people from other newspapers.
We set our style books according to what others do, we choose our graphics by watching who wins awards and then copying them. We run annual stories of snowstorms, fireworks, blueberry season and anything else we feel other news-papers will do.
So, we have gone about our business, for at least the past three decades, without trying to impress in any way the people who spend money on our product.
It is simple. We are failing because we are in a business of trust, and people no longer trust us. With good reason. We turned our backs on the people who supported us. We thought they would buy our product no matter how low the quality of the product sank, no matter how much we showed our disdain for them.
In newspapers or on the Internet, we have to earn back the trust of our readership and our advertisers with better writing, better editing, better choice of articles and a new focus on just who it is we are trying to impress.