Business of News: To Assure a Successful Future, Newspapers Must Break Away From the Print Model

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My Sunday routine is set.

I am in the shrinking group that still goes to Sunday mass. I watch my favorite baseball team. Relax a bit. And at night I turn on the TV and “watch” the New York Times.

I mean I watch the New York Times show called “The Weekly,” a half hour show on the FX network that also streams on Hulu. There’s nothing new about a Sunday night news program. “60 Minutes” has been a staple in that slot for decades. But no journalism show with the quality of the Times has ever been on screen consistently and I am hooked as my favorite newspaper moves into a new medium for storytelling. (In an earlier column, I confessed fandom for the Times’ daily podcast called simply “The Daily.”)

The Times, with its 1,600 journalists spread across the world, is beating a big drum in an orchestra where few others can scarcely make a peep. But that does not mean we should not follow the lesson here: newspapers produce great journalism—and we need to deliver in more ways.

The podcast world is booming. Next to celebrities, journalists have some of the highest Twitter followings. New video streaming services are starving for content. Each of these deliverers has a channel with one thing in common—a hunger for great content. And who better to provide that local content than local journalists?

Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, said recently that unless local newspapers have a local billionaire behind them, most of them will be dead in five years. His time chart might or might not be off by a few years, but he’s right. Advertising and circulation revenue do not support a business model based on such heavy production and delivery costs. No business in any industry can survive for long this way.

But look at the content moves that have paid off in the past 30 years.

My old company—E.W. Scripps—started HGTV and invigorated The Food Network. What was a newspaper and TV station company doing in category television? Moving its content creators into a new medium. By all rights, Meredith, which owns Better Homes & Gardens, should have made this move. But it stayed in the magazine business.

Netflix eschewed the store for the stream. Craig Newmark asked why the “help wanted” ads had to wait until the morning newspaper. Bill Simmons hopped from print to television to websites to podcasts, taking a loyal following wherever he went. And whoever heard of an “app” 10 years ago?

Flexibility and adaptation are the keys.

Local newspapers have a following. A loyal following. No one is in the local news game as we are, so why tie yourself to the print model that Baquet says will be dead in half a decade? The delivery highways need us so let’s use them.

Look at Adam Davidson, the former New Yorker staff writer. He and Laura Mayer, former executive producer at the podcast company Stitcher, are partnering with Sony Music to create programs across a variety of topics. You can easily see this new company developing local markets. Be there first with your own podcast. Find a partner for the delivery. You create the content.

This is not for everyone, but ESPN and Fox Corp. are pushing hard into apps for domestic sports betting. What local content that you produce could you deliver on an app to your community?

What makes local newspapers so unique is the variety of content—from well-known and comfortable content such as columnists and popular sportswriters to the ever-changing breaking news, to being the only source of reporting on local school boards and city councils. Mix in the deep, local reporting on the critical issues in your community and you have a content mix that no one can touch.

Our industry has learned painful lessons about partnering with delivery platforms such as Facebook that took our content and offered little return. We are smarter now. Be it TV, or podcasting, or apps, or video, or even something that is going to be created in the next few years—let’s not wait for our ship to come in. Let’s untether from the anchor of print and swim out to meet those opportunities. 

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

5 thoughts on “Business of News: To Assure a Successful Future, Newspapers Must Break Away From the Print Model

  • August 22, 2019 at 6:02 am
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    Transitioning to digital sounds great, until you look at the revenue model. Community weekly newspapers, of which there are still well over 6000 around the country, can’t sustain a newsroom on digital revenue now, or in the foreseeable future. Print still works in small towns and rural areas. Our readers want it, and are willing to pay for it. The kicker is, the content has to be there. I think Baquet is is absolutely wrong about community newspapers in print. We’re going to be in print for quite a while – a lot longer than five years.

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    • August 23, 2019 at 7:42 am
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      Excellent points! Long live PRINT!!!

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  • August 22, 2019 at 8:30 am
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    I agree fully with Matt. This guy is just another of the “big-city”, glory-hound, pundit, have-to-be-on-the-cutting-edge, get-the-scoop-at-any-cost (including accuracy) types who have NO CLUE about the desires and needs of the vast areas of the United States in “flyover” country. He’s the same type that would have among the heralded that radio would soon die because TV or then music videos or that there would never again be a market for vinyl LPs because of (take your pick).
    Technological advancement can be a great tool – including for journalism, but that should be what it is – a tool, not the be-all and end-all where all you do is chase the latest “fad,” doomed to never catch up, and to live out the fate Marshall McLuhan foresaw a half-century ago.
    Community newspapering (whether daily, semi-weekly, weekly) probably will never be a “cash cow” for the person wanting to get rich or famous owning or running one or working at one. It can – and, I believe, will, if operated well with the proper goals – continue to profitably serve (both in print and digitally) a vital role in helping provide the millions of people who find value other than dollars and cents in their lives, through things like family, community, service, deep friendship, loyalty, devotion to something other than chasing the dollar or the latest trend, a pace of life that allows for reflection and contemplation, and more.
    It’s no different than any business. Deliver quality and reliability. The key is, as Matt cited, to have the uranium – reliable content people want and find value in – to fuel that core and generate a self-sustaining reaction between the business/newspaper and customer.

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    • August 23, 2019 at 7:44 am
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      Excellent comments!!!! #longliveprint #buyapaper

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  • August 22, 2019 at 1:06 pm
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    It is thinking like this which has made the newspaper industry what it is today. The fact of the matter is that: 1) There is nothing new about “new” media. Radio established the template a century ago, which nothing since has shown the slightest ability to break from. 2) Paper is cheap. The cost per-page for newspapers is the same, not adjusted for inflation but the same, as it was 150 years ago. 3) People still read print in greater depth and quantity that any other media. If you want to truly penetrate a local market, the local newspaper still is the only way to do it…and always will be. Why? 4) Print is push media, electronic media is pull media, and push beats pull, every time.

    Despite a business model dedicated to the destruction of the printed newspaper, it endures. It could thrive if the idiots who own newspapers and their wrong-headed advisors would simply stop getting in the road.

    Reply

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