It’s been easy pickings for newspaper critics to laugh at newspapers for their “failure to get with the 21st century.” The Economist argued a year ago that newspapers have ignored reality. Other contend that newspapers just didn’t change fast enough and that’s hard to argue.
Jack Schafer of Slate and others understand that like the rest of society newspapers are morphing and not necessarily dying. Others question whether newspapers have the ability to fight disruptive change. I worry about that a lot and that’s why I spend so much time on disruption and innovation in my Business of Journalism class. That’s also why Dean Chris Callahan, here at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School for Journalism and Mass Communication, has started a New Media Innovation Lab and is about to start an entreprenurial lab.
But while those efforts, and valiant attempts at finding viable solutions like Newspaper Next , work to discover THE answer two interesting little footnotes I saw this week remind me of the reason newspaper change has always been so damned difficult. To paraphrase George Bush, we can’t anger the base.
Monday, the Arizona Republic put a little box at the top of column one of the newspaper announcing that beginning that day it was returning the Monday paper to the design that existed before March 19. I can find no web announcement though it may be there. On March 19 the paper made quite a big deal of changing its newspaper to a “more compact version for Monday’s time starved readers.” The paper combined and abbrieviated several sections and the readers had a noticeably shrunken paper.
I knew, and I suspect readers knew, that while an argument could be made that the approach would save readers time it was also clear that it would save the Republic significant money on newshole.
This Monday’s quiet announcement of a return to the old format said that readers “objected.'” As a former editor of a newspaper I can speculate that translates into “we got absolutely hammered by readers.”
Then Tuesday I read that the Baltimore Sun Public editor is dealing with frustrated readers who don’t use a computer and are mad about so many features being moved online. The Public Editor quoted one readers as saying: “If you are putting more and more material online only, you are making it less and less desirable for those of us who buy your newspaper every day. We represent the readers who have stayed with The Sun through thick and thin. We are living with what we get – but it doesn’t mean we like it.”
This is why newspaper editors have been reluctant to throw the little tyke out with the bathwater. The dedicated readers, or the base, are formidable for newspapers. In a speech I gave this summer to the American Association of Independent News Distributors, a speech you can find below, I talked about this “dedicated reader issue.”
I wrote this: “ Back in the dark ages, circa 1995 we knew about 27 percent of our readers were so dedicated to reading the newspaper they would spend well more than 30 minutes with the product. I have no idea what that numbers looks like now, but I do know the desperate attempts by publishers to chase marginal readers have deeply offended those dedicated readers.
“In every market I know people express disgust with the lightweight nature of the daily newspaper they once relied on and they inquire about the availability of the New York Times and other serious sources of information. We have messed around so much that our most cherished asset—committed readers– are suddenly at dire risk. And, we keep trying to make it worse….. “
The dillemma is real. Radical change and innovation are absolutely required in the print product and online. And, certainly the days are numbered for the core base of readers. Yet, it is also true that the considerable revenues and profits newspapers garner everyday are coming as a result of that loyal base.
The supreme challenge has always been, and remains, reinvent the daily newspaper at the same time you keep that loyal base happy. At some point, I believe newspaper executives are going to realize that “base” may not be the mass audience of 25 years ago, but it is a mighty handsome market that deserves to be served well.
There was a bombshell nugget in the story Romanesko featured the other day on Banc of America beginning coverage of six newspaper publisher stocks. Right in the middle of the story the Bank asserted that newspaper stocks are underpriced and that while the decline will continue through 2008 the decline in advertising revenue is CYCLICAL! That is a WOW! I am not the one to argue with investment pros, since I’ve only recently got that “buy low, sell high” thing down, but everything I see in the digital revolution, the secular decline in classified, the massive troubles facing depatment stores and the lack of interest in newspaper advertsing shown by big box stores tells me this decline is anything but cyclical. I acknowledge hope is a good thing. Dreams, not so good.
Willam Powers wrote a fascinating response to a Lou Ureneck column this week. Powers got testy about the idea that some sort of civic loyalty is owed to newspapers. He wrote, “Nothing will kill great newspapers more quickly than turning them into charity cases. And nobody should read newspapaers out of a dreary sense of of civic obligation.”
Powers is correct. Nobody owes newspapers a thing. We all do owe the democratic process our maxium engagement. If we are able to achieve that high level of civic engagement with a newspaperless, web-driven media culture then that will be just dandy. But before we celebrate the demise of the newspaper we’d better be confident we have a media system that will be as effective in lubricating the civic discourse as newspapers have been.