Life Without the Print Edition

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By: Steve Outing

I stopped getting the print edition of my local newspaper this month. Among my new-media expert colleagues, I’m behind the curve with that move; many gave up the print habit long ago. But compared to the general population, I’m still ahead of most folks.

I admit, I feel a bit guilty about this. After all, I write for and offer advice to newspapers on an industry website. I support the newspaper industry and hope that it can come through the current downturn and learn to thrive in the new media world. So, wouldn’t I want to support it by continuing to pay for printed newspapers to land on my driveway each morning, as a sign of solidarity with the industry? After all, print revenues are keeping the industry afloat, since online revenues can’t yet match print’s. Umm, no, actually.

Why I Did It
I’d been thinking for quite some time that I didn’t really need the print edition any more. My wife and I had conversations in recent years about dropping our subscription to the Boulder Daily Camera, but whenever I brought it up she vetoed the idea. She continued to enjoy the print reading experience each morning. (I attribute this in part to simple habits; she’s 48 and I’m 51, and newspaper print reading is ingrained in members of our graying generation.) But even she recognized that everything that was in the paper — and much more — is available in convenient form online for free.

What put her over the edge — and allowed me to prevail with my suggestion of abandoning print — was the most recent bill from the local paper. It included a significant price hike, just as we were noticing the paper and its coverage get thinner and thinner. Pay a lot more and get less? If we needed something to push us over the edge and cancel print delivery, the extra 15 cents a day (about $53 a year, bringing the annual bill to a bit under $200) was it. No, that’s not a lot of money, and if we truly wanted to continue getting print delivery, we’d have paid it. But for a product that increasingly is less useful in light of online alternatives, there was no motivation to accept the price hike.

(As I was writing this column, coincidentally, a Camera telemarketer called with an offer to restart our subscription at the old rate. I’m not surprised, but we still declined.)

Why I Don’t Feel Guilty
My first job out of college, coincidentally, was at the Daily Camera as a copy editor, so I do feel a twinge of regret letting go of its print edition. And I have no problem with the paper; I appreciate its reporters’ work and continue to read it (just not in print). But times change, and the Camera and other newspapers need to change with them. A print edition is no longer as relevant to our lives. We’re flooded with information — most of it free — from the Web, e-mail, RSS feeds, podcasts, phone alerts, TV and radio news. Most of the information that comes in the daily print edition is not new to me.

To continue to support the Camera’s print edition would just delay the inevitable. Getting all my news on my laptop computer and phone is so obviously the preferred option that, I reasoned, I may as well make the switch now. If anything, perhaps moves like mine from growing numbers of people will cause the industry to reinvent itself a bit faster, out of necessity. I shouldn’t feel guilty about exhibiting consumer behavior that is increasingly common, even if still a bit leading-edge.

What I’ll Miss: Not Much
The exercise of deciding whether or not to end print delivery got me thinking about what in the paper version of the newspaper I would miss, if anything, and what I’d need to replace with digital alternatives. Let’s consider that, along with how newspaper companies might change to serve consumers’ modernized needs:

COMICS
I bring this up first because it was one of the arguments my wife made for continuing to get the paper edition: My youngest daughter enjoys reading the comics page every day, and she might miss it. But this is a kid who has her own computer and, at age 10, is graduating up to higher levels of online proficiency. She’s content to receive her favorite comics as a daily e-mail. No complaints from her about missing the paper edition.

It was easy to set up e-mail delivery of favorite comics to our family each day. Various services offer either delivery of free comics supported by ads (typically coming one comic per e-mail), or there are low-cost paid services that can send you a bunch of comics of your choosing. I opted for GoComics.com’s service to deliver comics to my family, for $11.95 a year.

What can newspapers offer to non-print subscribers? A way to build your own comics page, like this one from the Houston Chronicle’s Chron.com, is a good start. That service suggests saving your personal comics page as a web browser bookmark. Ideal would be a delivery option, of course, but the comics syndicates aren’t likely to allow that. What about affiliate relationships with them where you sell online comics delivery services like GoComics Pro to your readers?

No, I won’t miss the print edition’s comics.

STOCKS.
I can’t help but think that this is a lost cause for newspapers. Hours-old printed stock listings are pretty much irrelevant thanks to the many available options for getting stock quotes, personalized alerts, and doing investor research online. Unfortunately for most newspapers, they are not the first place most stockholders think to go to online when needing financial information. I certainly won’t miss that piece of the print edition, since I never looked at what little was left after most of it was cut in recent years.

WEATHER.
Ditto for weather. With so many great online weather services, most newspapers’ weather coverage — in print and online — pales in comparison. And the online weather competitors offer good value with their free services; plus advanced features for a modest annual fee. How could newspapers serve non-print subscribers with local weather news? Frankly, I doubt they can offer services that are competitive with the best online weather services, which do a great job serving local markets. Where they might win some friends is in offering TV-like web weathercasts, like this one from the Daily Camera, which can’t be had elsewhere.

Doing a good job with local weather and including that in e-mail newsletters, personalized editions, or RSS feeds of a newspaper website’s content is probably the best that can be hoped for. Or establish affiliate relationships with premium weather online services, getting a cut for bringing them new customers who want more than your free weather offering.

BUSINESS NEWS.
The Camera has fairly thin local business news most days. With print behind me, I can still keep up with local business developments through the Camera’s website (and free daily business-news e-mail alert), as well as a local business weekly, the Boulder County Business Report, which offers news on its website as well as e-mail delivery of local business news, for free.

What could a paper like the Camera offer to non-print subscribers that represents revenue? That’s tough to answer. But one potential opportunity is to offer deeper coverage of specific industries that are big locally, or of specific companies with a big local following. If the coverage is deep enough, it’s possible to publish niche e-newsletters with a subscription fee plus advertising. In Boulder, for example, the “natural foods” business is hugely important; the city is considered one of the key birthplaces of the natural foods industry. Developing a niche product could make sense (and dollars); it could be supported by advertising from within the niche, and/or the service could carry a fee. For the latter, there better be demand for the coverage or the revenue could be thin.

In an era of shrinking staffs (and areas like business news are among those likely to suffer cuts), it will take some new thinking to pull off such an approach. One model is to deploy a reporter who specializes in an industry like natural foods and make that person reporter and editor, overseeing a special sub-website and team of outside industry experts. Consultants may contribute content because the visibility grows their business; CEOs may blog for the exposure; other industry experts may contribute coverage and opinion either for personal exposure or for a modest “stringer” fee. Students and professors at the local business school are another potential pool of non-staff reporters and columnists.

SPORTS NEWS.
What I just said about business news also applies to local sports coverage. Coverage of national sports is available at high quality from many sources, so a local newspaper can’t hope to be relevant to non-print subscribers when it comes to that. Local sports coverage can drive significant traffic to a newspaper’s website, and sports e-mail news alerts and e-newsletters can see high usage.

The best hope for serving non-print subscribers may come from the model described above, of offering deeper coverage of specific sports and/or teams — bringing in new voices from outside the newspaper staff. College and professional athlete blogs, for example, could deepen your local sports coverage and allow for low-cost creation of niche sports products online. Player/coach content could enhance high school sports coverage, when overseen and enhanced by a professional editor.

LOCAL NEWS.
OK, so now we get to the thing where the local newspaper has some strength. In-depth local reporting is not something that can easily be replicated by other sources. Newspapers need to figure out how to make money from their core function online to make up for the coming losses on the print side.

How will I replace local news coverage with no more print edition being delivered? Foremost, of course, I’ve become a more regular visitor of DailyCamera.com to read local news. I also now receive its (free) daily e-mail newsletters with summaries of top stories in News, Business, Sports and University of Colorado; as a result, I click through often to stories on the paper’s website. The Camera is making a small amount of money from my visits to their site.

Also, I now get local news from other sources, thanks to sites like Outside.in,which delivers me a regular e-mail aggregating Boulder news from various sources (including the Daily Camera). Topix is a great free source of links to Boulder news, and I track the Boulder RSS feed using Google Reader.

When it comes to the Camera’s website, it does feel like I’m freeloading — benefiting from their reporting without paying a dime except indirectly by being exposed to website ads. This is what so many newspaper publishers feared in the early days of the Internet: online would bring down print readership, and online usage wouldn’t make up for lost revenues. We’re now starting to see this happen.

What should newspapers like the Camera do with non-print subscribers like me when it comes to local news coverage? First, I’m not convinced that charging for access is the answer. It’s too important for a newspaper to get its content out to all possible channels. Websites are no longer islands, and using the “distributed web” to find readers and viewers on many websites is too important a strategy to abandon in an effort to pull in a few dollars. Restricting access to local news content is definitely a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot strategy.

But perhaps where some money can be made is in offering convenience. For example, above I mentioned how I paid $12 a year to have my favorite comics delivered to me, even though I could view comics each day for free on a comics or news website. The Camera might pry some dollars out of me by offering a convenient delivery service of content that’s relevant to me — saving me the effort of clicking around its site each day by selecting and delivering the content that I want.

For example, I’d pay a few bucks for a service that plucked out news from near my home, and about niche topics that I’m interested in, and delivered that to me regularly. I’d pay for convenience. This is the online “fremium” model, where most content is offered for free, but premium services have a price tag. Publishers need to figure out what premium services people will be willing to pay for. It’s likely that it’s not the content that people will pay for, but the convenience (as with the comics example).

CLASSIFIEDS.
This is a real problem area for newspapers. Print classifieds are not something I miss now that I’m no longer a print subscriber. Various online services — especially the Boulder site of Craigslist — serve me better. Various (robust) employment, auto and real estate websites are an effective replacement. I can always visit the Camera’s online classifieds if I need to.

Newspaper classifieds need a complete reinvention. (Disclosure: One of the projects I’m currently working on aims to create some options for newspaper publishers to reinvent their classifieds strategy.) I’ll get into this at a later date, but in brief, I think that newspapers need to apply a distributed web strategy to classifieds if they have any hope of remaining relevant in the classifieds space online.

What The Newspaper Never Gave Me
Looking at the list above, I don’t see many big non-print revenue producers. To better serve former print subscribers like me, publishers would be well advised to take heed of the message of the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next 2.0 report, which was released recently.

The core point made in that report is that newspaper publishers have a tremendous opportunity ahead of them if they expand their focus to serving everyone in their communities. That means not just existing newspaper readers, but creating services that non-readers will want. It means serving advertisers and companies who have never before had a relationship with their local paper.

In the words of Newspaper Next 2.0 principal author Stephen T. Gray, newspapers should endeavor to become ?local information and connection utilities.” That means, among other things, becoming the place that everyone in a community gravitates to whenever they have any local information need. Of course, newspaper staffs can’t do that alone, and certainly not with their existing content. They must reach out and include other community members who are publishing local information, and become not just news gathering organizations, but clearinghouses for local information and news published by individuals and institutions outside of themselves. Add some “convenience” services that sift through that for a consumer’s information preferences and deliver the results, then you’ve got something really valuable.

In thinking about what the Daily Camera and other local newspapers can offer former print subscribers like me, Newspaper Next 2.0 gives some good hints. If they can offer me an effective and useful filter to all in my community that might be relevant me, in addition to the content that they produce, and give me a way to easily specify and receive what meets my needs, I’ll be as loyal to that as I have been to the print edition all these years.

What that means is that papers like the Daily Camera must become much more than what they have been historically.

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Editor’s note: Daily Camera publisher Al Manzi and editor Kevin Kaufman were invited prior to publication to comment publicly on this column, but both declined.

Read feedback about this piece here and here.

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