A Modest Proposal for Newspapers in the 21st Century

by Aaron Bradley on March 25, 2011

in News Media

A Modest Proposal for Newspapers in the 21st Century

The newspaper industry has long been in crisis. When I say "newspaper industry" I am making reference to the word "newspaper" as it would have been defined circa 1995, at the dawn of the modern digital communications age: a large sheaf of newsprint containing articles, photographs and advertisements, provided at a nominal cost to news consumers by way of news kiosks, newspaper boxes and direct delivery.

The basic facts of the crisis are by now so well known it hardly seems necessary to enumerate them. In the past decade print subscriptions and print readers have steadily declined. Print advertising revenue has similarly been on a downward spiral, and online advertising sources have failed to close the revenue gap. Newspaper features that once guaranteed reader loyalty and advertiser dollars have long been supplanted by online alternatives, alternatives that as often as not provide one-time news consumers with superior functionality: classified ads, horoscopes, crossword puzzles, advice columns, photo features, television listings, weather forecasts, sports statistics, color supplements, the weekend comics.

Battle of the Curves: Print and Online Readership

Battle of the Curves: Print and Online Readership

The repercussions of this upheaval in the news landscape are also well known. Layoffs in newsrooms around the world. Bureaus closed. Bankruptcy filings. The offices of once powerful and illustrious newspapers lay empty, yellowing copies of last editions grim reminders of a glorious past eclipsed.

Those newspapers still pumping out the daily ink struggle to find their way as print circulation continues to dwindle. The same questions are asked in business meetings around the globe. How do we find new revenue sources? Now do we stay relevant? How do we survive?

My proposal is simple. It is highly actionable. The path I suggest though, even if embraced, may be too late for many newspapers. In the long run adopting this proposal may not even ensure the survival of a given newspaper's print edition, but might at least provide a fighting chance for the organization that prints it. But I think that any newspaper that fails to pay heed to this basic advice is doomed.

Write for the web first, and print second.

By "the web" I mean, of course, digital devices. From a audience perspective this means write first for those who consume their news on their desktops, laptops, tablets and digital phones. And by all means, if it's cost effective (or if you can absorb the loss) continue to provide this same information, perhaps in a modified form, for those eager to keep the pulp and paper factories in Port Alberni and Prince George going. But those consumers of news and trees should be a secondary concern. Write for the web first, and print second: in other words, do the exact opposite of what you are probably doing now.

Of course there are many newspapers that have acknowledged the importance of their digital readership, and a few have even to some degree embraced the reality of news consumption in the twentieth century. But the most cursory survey of newspapers online reveals that the majority of newspapers that were born in the age of print, the vast majority, are creating a product for print first, and the web second.

The Times of London and Politico

Quiz: Spot the Newspaper Website

Articles that reference websites and do not link to them.  Boring boilerplate web design.  Lousy onsite search functionality.  Limited opportunities for user engagement, if they exist at all.  Facebook Pages and Twitter profiles consisting of nothing of but a news feed, with no signs of meaningful interaction with readers.  Useless tag clouds.  Inadequate meta data.  Registration barriers.

All signs of publications produced first and foremost for print consumers, with their digital existence an afterthought.

What would the reversal of this model entail?  Fundamentally, a conceptual shift that would see writers, editors, subscription managers, sales people and secretaries visualizing their final product as something that appears on their screen, not something that's delivered throughout the newsroom when the day's print run is finished.

For news writers, there would be no more paper.  Stories would be composed, edited and published on digital platforms.  Sure, any journalist writes articles with the aid of a keyboard and monitor, but that articles are written on a digital platform does not mean they are written for digital platforms.  Writers in a web-focused newsroom would encode both internal and external links in their articles.  They would have the ability to pull data into them from any number of sources.  They would aid in the classification and findability of their  stories by curating the tags and references produced by back-end semantic engines.  They would know the keywords used by their readers to find their stories, especially if they wrote regularly on the same topics (had "a beat").  They would at least sample the comments made by readers on their stories, and possibly even digitally interact with some of those readers.

Write for the web first, and print second.  And extend this principle by substituting other verbs for "write."

Design for the web first, and print second.  Think first of how to present stories most compellingly and usefully for digital devices, and then figure out how to make those stories work in print.  Understand that "stories" are in fact dynamic documents, and account structurally for updates, reactions and revisions that will make pieces more useful for readers.  Build sites and apps that draw on two decades of lessons learned about effective user interaction, information architecture and internet marketing.  Make your website the primary delivery mechanism for your news, rather than a container into which you try to stuff a printed product.  Hire your next art director on the basis of their experience in digital design rather their print background.

Edit for the web first, and print second.  Not enough column inches for that incredible piece on the war in Afghanistan?  Publish it in full digitally, and edit out what can't fit for the print edition.  Do away with the web notice indicating "this story originally published on page B3 on the 4th of April" with the understanding it was originally published at 6:39:12 PM on the 3rd of April where your news lives – on your website.

Advertising Pages: The Globe and Mail and eHow

Selling Ads: The Globe and Mail and eHow

Sell ads for the web first, and print second. When the director of advertising boots his machine in the morning an analytics dashboard is the first thing that's launched. He knows the ballpark figures for bounce rates, pages per visit, ad impressions, click-through rates and visitor demographics off the top of his head.  He knows the print numbers too, but he cares most about what reliable Comscore or Nielsen metrics he can use to entice advertisers to the site, rather than audited circulation and subscription numbers – which makes sense, as the number of those readers pale in comparison to the number that consume the newspaper's content online.

The web first, print second.  Print readers are out there, but they're getting older, and just there's a whole generation of kids out there that have never purchased a newspaper, and aren't likely to pick up the habit.  And just as print readers are shuffling toward the grave, so are the publishers and editors in chief that been lording over their publications' decline.  Will their successors be able to embrace the the digital age, or are even they too closely bound to the print tradition?

David Bradley - London Free Press

David Bradley at the London Free Press, Circa 1960

I am not some young buck bristling with disdain for a news era I never knew (I am, to say the least, not young).  I even come from a print journalism family.  My father worked for newspapers most of his life, and was at one time a managing editor at the Toronto Star.  My uncle was a columnist for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. My sister (Masters in Journalism, thank you very much) worked at one my father's first papers, The London Free Press (though seeing the writing on the wall, she shelved her newspaper career to become a high school teacher).  Hell, All the President's Men is one of my favorite movies!

So I have both an immense fondness and a personal appreciation for the print era.  And one of the reasons I hope newspapers understand that this era has past is so they can survive, reborn, and continue to provide the world with the best that print journalism has offered, and is still required in the digital age.  Investigative journalism.  Local news of real importance to communities.  News and analysis that holds power to account.  If they do survive, news that I'll be reading on the web first, and print second.

"Battle of the Curves" source images:  Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics and RAAK.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phil Buckley March 25, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Great article Aaron, here’s some additional information I can pass along from my 4 years inside the walls of McClatchy Interactive…

Even though it’s less, print still brings in “all” the money.
Sales people don’t sell online because selling print pays their mortgage
Current journalists have zero desire to learn a new style, because they love their memories from when they learned their craft.
Explaining search to people who write headlines like “Yule Procession” instead of “Christmas Parade” is like beating your head against a wall
How do you respond to, “It’s the economy, not our product” when it’s a senior VP saying it?!?? (answer: you find a new job)

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2 Aaron Bradley March 29, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Really appreciate the insight, Phil – very interesting (if not altogether surprising) perspective. And to your economics point, just today I was reading a piece by Alan Mutter that claims that print advertising and circulation account “80% to 90% of the revenues at the typical newspaper.” I don’t know where this comes from, as Pew recently stated that online revenue has just surpassed print.

Perhaps this only pertains to the 80% to 90% of newspapers that are doomed to fail.

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3 Alan Gray November 18, 2011 at 3:50 am

Thank you Aaron.
Some of those old journalists write at NewsBlaze, and we love them a lot.
Del Marbrook, John McCormick.
I hope more print newspapers read what you say.
We want them to thrive.
I suspect that what Phil says, about the print advertising, is due to the number of people who still have a newspaper delivered, and who fit the buyers’ demographics. I get The Advertiser here, but I’m in Australia, where there are more luddites.

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