Steve Outing: Goodbye, for Now? But Looking Forward

By: Steve Outing

Back in 1995, Editor & Publisher invited me to start writing a freelance column for its brand-new Web site, initially called MediaInfo.com. An ex-newspaper journalist, I had become an early “expert” on the intersection of online services and the World Wide Web with the newspaper industry, and I began covering interactive media for the bible of the newspaper industry.

Nearly 15 years later, this is (most likely) my last column, if E&P — the magazine and the Web site — disappears from view.

Back when I started, I couldn’t possibly have guessed that:
1. I’d continue to write this column for that long.
2. The newspaper industry would fail to benefit from the Internet, and bequeath opportunities to eager entrepreneurs who did capitalize, big time, at the expense of newspapers.

A confession
As much as I have loved newspapers, since the Web came along in late 1993, it hasn’t been the paper, per se, that I loved — but rather the type of journalism that newspaper companies were able to produce. While far from perfect, newspapers were able to afford the big editorial staffs, which other media forms could not, to cover their communities well and (often) uncover mistakes, corruption and wrongdoing by government and business.

In fact, in the mid-1990s I really expected that by 2009 there to be a lot less ?paper? moving around. I hoped that would be the case, actually, since the trees felled and all the trucks spewing pollution throughout the process of getting newspapers onto millions of home driveways each day has long struck me as environmentally damaging and ultimately unsustainable.

Back then, had you asked me to project 15 years ahead, I would have suggested that newspaper print editions would get overtaken in usage by online and digital replacements, and that primarily the older generations would still be reading on paper. Actually, that’s why I chose the name of this column, “Stop The Presses!”, back in 1995. It felt right, both hearkening to the past and foretelling the future. My E&P editors in 1995 were savvy enough to get the joke, and overlook the possibility that some E&P readers might take offense at what my column’s name implied.

Back to the present, I’ve decided to end this column with two lists:
1. How things should have gone for the newspaper industry.
2. Since they didn’t go that way, what to expect next.

The 20/20 hindsight fantasy scenario
If Quentin Tarantino can produce a fantasy revisionist-history blockbuster like “Inglourious Basterds,” about a band of Jews killing Adolph Hitler and the Nazi leadership, then I can script how the newspaper industry’s previous 15 years should have played out.

1. In 1994-95, newspaper executives recognize that the Web is something with the potential to rock their world, and increase R&D budgets significantly in order to plan for and begin building new businesses based on fast-developing new technology. Knight Ridder (now defunct) does not shut down its pioneering Information Design Laboratory (1992-95) in Boulder, Colorado, and transitions into a corporation that goes on to build successful Internet businesses that complement its core newspaper publishing business.

2. Learning from media history (e.g., TV started out as radio with a video image of the announcer speaking into a microphone), newspaper leaders decide not to repeat it this time around. They direct new-media R&D staff to design new online services that create original content and new utilities — things that are not possible in print but are online. Print journalism is still leveraged online, of course, but it does not dominate the new-media team’s thinking or mission.

3. Fat and happy with enviable profit margins, newspaper companies’ leaders take note of the wave of Internet start-up companies in the late 1990s. Business development executives with technology experience are brought in from outside the newspaper industry to identify the most promising trends and start-up companies, and begin making acquisitions and/or significant investments, in a big way. Newspapers may be fiscally fat and happy, but their leaders want more, see opportunity, and they have the money to invest in complementary Internet businesses.

4. Some of these investments and acquisitions take off, and newspaper companies have on their hands complementary businesses that will grow to dominate their sectors. Newspaper executives take a mostly hands-off approach, leaving evolution of the acquisitions to technologists who have their eyes on media’s future.

5. Even though these new digital acquisitions seemingly (through late-1990s news-leader eyes) have little to do with the uber-profitable business of publishing newspapers, the acquisitions are marketed (at little or no cost) aggressively in the newspapers. Newspaper executives, educated and persuaded by the technologists they’ve brought on board, foresee the day when their new acquisitions will out-earn print revenues.

6. Newspaper executives and editors early on grasp the essential difference between print publishing and the Internet: one-to-many only, vs. one-to-one (plus one-to-many). This epiphany, experienced early on, permits industry investments and acquisitions into new businesses that leverage the ability for people to communicate with each other online; newspaper companies end up being part of what eventually becomes the social networking industry. Journalists are educated on interaction with the audience as a result of their employers entering this new space, and that begins the cultural transition of the newsroom toward an interactive relationship with readers rather than the lecture model.

7. As the Internet bust of 2000 hits, newspaper executives begin to doubt their strategy, but their portfolio includes some Internet companies that ride out the temporary slump. As the Internet bounces back, newspapers recognize the wave heading back up and resume their digital-expansion strategies.

8. In the mid-2000s, the era of cheap money, newspaper executives see the tremendous growth of the best Internet companies and resist inclinations to consolidate and acquire other newspaper companies. Instead, they up the game of complementary acquisitions and investments in the digital and burgeoning mobile spaces.

9. As reader and advertiser behavior changes, newspaper companies accept the fact that their newspaper operations will produce less profit and soon will need to either cut staff or subsidize newsrooms from more profitable new businesses. Because of their foresight, they are able to maintain high editorial quality while making the transition to a digital-centric model for their core news business.

10. The late-2000s recession is ridden out by newspaper companies because they have diversified and grabbed the digital opportunities as they arose early on. There’s still room to invest and focus on the next big media opportunity: mobile content and services.

Ahh, that sounds so simple. If only someone had created a time machine in the mid-1990s, then comic-strip artists and late-night comics wouldn’t be making fun of newspapers as today’s buggy-whip makers.

What’s next
Since the newspaper industry in general took the wrong path, let’s get back to reality. Here’s what we’re likely to see in the next few years as a result of how newspaper leaders chose to respond to disruptive technology.

1. Small-town independent newspapers don’t grow much, but they are able to continue with healthy print circulation for several more years. But eventually, they start hurting more, like their metro cousins, as local advertisers shift more and more money to cheaper, more effective digital advertising opportunities.

2. Urban metro papers continue to shrink. More papers stop publishing in print on some days of the week; others go to Sunday-only for print and online/mobile for the rest of week; and a few go entirely digital. Unfortunately, we see some more newspapers die.

3. The wave of small news start-ups — non-profits, hyper-local for- and non-profits, placebloggers who’ve figured out how to make a living, combo professional- and citizen-reporting digital news services, university-affiliated news entities, etc. — that we see emerging today grows rapidly. Journalists laid off or bought out by newspapers start many of these services, aided by new companies that help them on the advertising, business and technology sides (e.g., GrowthSpur ), and new local digital ad networks serving all local media, new and old.

4. Some of these small entities partner with local newspapers, gaining for themselves revenue to support their mission, while giving the newspapers quality content much cheaper than the papers could produce it themselves. This is especially the case with costly and time-intensive investigative journalism, where local non-profit public-interest news sites (a la VoiceofSanDiego ) partially support themselves with money from “old media.”

5. News aggregators (Google News, et al) and personal digital agents (e.g., Circulate, but more likely to come from the likes of Google or Facebook) become the norm for consumers getting their customized news streams on their computers, mobile phones, e-readers, and other devices. As a result, newspaper Web sites become less important. Newspaper publishers and editors learn, in order to survive, how to get their content into all the appropriate streams. And they develop ways to monetize content as it flees the home pond (Web site) for the many new streams (aggregators, agents, social news streams, etc.). Those that don’t, die.

6. The saber-rattling over pay walls at newspaper Web sites will die down as Google, which many newspaper executives seem to perceive as the No. 1 cause of their woes, accommodates their concerns and introduces more technology that helps news producers turn digital dimes into quarters (or more). Paid content by newspapers is supported by new systems, but it’s a small amount of the content they produce.

7. Newspaper companies that do survive and prosper do so by devoting significant resources (at executive and technical levels) to mobile as the next platform of opportunity. They don’t repeat the mistakes of a decade earlier made with the Web, but instead raise mobile to a top priority.

8. Newspapers that do well adapt quickly to the instant nature of crowd-sourced news (e.g., aggregating and filtering eyewitness reports from Twitter), rather than fight it.

9. Some newspaper companies survive the journey across the chasm between the old print-centric model and a new digital model. These are most likely the companies whose board of directors install new leadership not chained to the success of past business models. Among the survivors, we’re more likely to see repeats of National Public Radio’s digital transition, where a new CEO (Vivian Schiller) was hired because of her digital experience, mindset and vision, even though she had less of that for radio.

10. I continue to write about the future of news on my personal blog, but don’t emphasize newspapers so much.

Bye, for now
I’m looking forward to re-reading this column in about five years, to see if I’m on target or missed widely. Meanwhile, you’ll find me focusing on a new project, the Digital Media Test Kitchen at the University of Colorado at Boulder, hosted by the School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Watch my blog and you’ll soon see that launched.

To everyone who’s read this column over the years, whether routinely or occasionally, thank you for taking some of your valuable time to listen to my ideas, and respond and interact with me. To everyone I’ve talked with or interviewed over the years, thank you for educating me on innovation in news and sharing your knowledge and vision.

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