“Reality Check,” a paper published in July by University of Texas journalism professors Hsiang Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim, argues that newspapers lost their way over the past decade by attempting to compete in the realm of free online content. As a result, they argue, their original, “core” product—print—suffered, while newspaper brands were degraded by forays into clickbait stories and poorly designed online platforms monetized by annoying popup ads.
Their conclusion—that newspapers should effectively dump their online presence and focus on improving the dead tree edition—is laughably out of touch with the reality of reader habits, advertiser demands, and common sense about the most effective ways to report and present the news and engage with a community about its information needs.
But the introduction to their paper is accurate for many newspaper companies as a standalone statement: “Twenty years into U.S. newspapers’ online ventures, many are stuck between a shrinking market for their print product and an unsuccessful experiment with digital offerings.”
And it raises questions: How can newspapers better manage and respect the role of the print edition without handcuffing digital growth? What can digital operations learn from the traditional success of print, and vice versa?
Strengths of the print edition include:
- A declining but core, loyal, and importantly—paying—base of readers.
- Advertising rates that, although declining at an even faster rate than subscriber revenue, still command much higher CPMs than digital.
The ability, via organization of each day’s edition, to guide readers through what the newsroom has found to be the most important news of the day in an organized, digestible, way, with an end point. The front page signals the importance editors have assigned to the top stories of the day.
Digital, on the other hand, serves:
- The vast majority of the community that feels better served by digital platforms that provide immediacy, depth, unlimited connections between different pieces of information, and an interactive consumption and conversation about the news.
- Advertisers who want to target an audience most likely to be interested in their product, when they’re most likely to be interested, in formats that are more likely to engage them.
In an attempt to juggle both, newspaper companies have funded digital resources (or, more accurately, protection of profit margin) by cutting the infrastructure associated with print. Pressrooms and circulation departments have been outsourced, print deadlines have been pushed back, page count cut back, delivery options curtailed. And customer service has suffered tremendously, something that’s been far more damaging to customer relationships than a skimpier print product.
The business practice abuses of print customers have done far more to degrade newspaper brands than publishing online content that wouldn’t have appeared in a traditional print edition in the olden days.
Meanwhile, newsrooms that are attempting to be “digital first” while continuing to put out a print edition find themselves with tails wagging dogs—tied to staffing plans, work schedules, story formats and word counts that wouldn’t be chosen in a purely digital operation. Newsrooms with content management systems that serve both print and digital at the same time by their very nature limit digital.
Digital operations could learn from the curative and organizational strengths of print. The resurgence of email newsletters, for example, shows in an age of information overload the value of the role an editor can play in guiding readers to what is most important for them to see on a given day.
And newspapers can’t ignore the way readers and consumers have all kinds have been empowered by the web. That should apply to the user experience of the print edition. Raising prices indiscriminately, providing poor customer service and failing to be transparent about it doesn’t fly anymore. The reputation of the brand is at stake.
If newspaper companies intend to be in business beyond the next few years, of course the University of Texas journalism professor duo’s prescription for dumping digital does not make sense.
But increasingly, newspapers might want to think about separating the print and digital businesses into distinct and separately managed operations that could even include, as the University of Texas report suggests, separate branding.
Matt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.