Converting Print Profits to Digital

It’s anything but a surprise, but the news industry is failing.

The worst of the storm is upon us now. According to the American Society of News Editors, 5,200 daily newspaper reporters lost their jobs in 2009 – the least severe cut since 2007, although it still drives up the total number to 13,500. Since 2000, layoffs and closing of newsrooms cost the newspaper industry $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity.

And sadly, more bad news is expected for the immediate future.

Massive conglomerate owners of the largest daily paper down to smaller weekly publishers are feeling the burn and many are trying to sooth their financial sting by shrinking their newsrooms. With fewer reporters comes a drop in fresh and detailed copy to fill up the paper since it’s cheaper to pick up syndicated content than produce homegrown material.

The Internet has wreaked havoc on everything from subscription sales to advertising rates, and now the industry is not only fighting each other for readers and potential advertisers, but they’re facing masses that refuse to buy a copy of the paper because they expect information to be provided gratis.

So how is a self-respecting publisher supposed to survive, let alone make money, in this wild and unforgiving new environment? Dozens of publications have shuttered their doors since this question was first posed around the turn of the new millennium, and many more remain on the brink – deep in debt, severely cutting staff, and accepting poor long-term business decisions to survive in the immediate future.

Perhaps the solution calls for embracing the new wave of journalism while holding on to many of the tenets and guidelines that kept newspapers thriving for decades. Why throw out the baby with the bath water, just because everyone is anxious to join the hype surrounding the Internet, smart phones, and other new technology?

This means continuing to produce newspapers, at least in some capacity. There are just some situations in which an acceptable alternative for print has yet to be found (i.e. at breakfast, or riding the subway to work). An audience, possibly shrinking, also exists of those who prefer to hold copy in their hands rather than read off a screen.

At the same time, it is imperative newspapers embrace the Internet and technology. No news outlet is foolish enough these days to not have some type of online presence, but some websites are equally as unhelpful. Readers don’t care about your financial troubles, equipment costs, or business decisions; they care about a clean finished product that reliably provides timely information. PDF copies of the print version slapped on the Internet are the bare minimum a news outlet should provide, but most people expect a full site developed with HTML and CSS. Your website should include as much copy as possible, as well as multi-media and advertisements.

The ideal news website should attract loyal customers, probably looking to multi-task while commuting or checking e-mail, as well as readers outside the coverage area hunting for coverage of a specific event, not to mention traffic driven via search engines. Providing all sorts of wonderful content for free sounds great in a perfect world, but the thousands of aggregate websites populating the Internet are more than happy to steal your thunder. They may reference the source site, even provide a link, but the general concept of an aggregate is to steal the newsworthy nugget and shout it from the rooftops themselves.

It’s probably a better idea to find a happy medium: Offer limited free access and set a minimum pay wall for better content. If thousands of people are willing to spend a small amount of money for a song on iTunes they can listen to at no cost on YouTube, readers will surely pay for the convenience of a digital news outlet.

One constant remains in both the print and digital news world that is crippling many outlets – a publication is only as strong as its newsroom. Sure it’s nice for the bottom line and the stockholders to lay off half the staff and force everyone else to pick up extra beats. The problem is that this drastically reduces quality. Overworked employees are less likely to provide top-notch work, and if they’re expected to be handling three jobs at once, good luck getting anything more in-depth than man on the street. A turnaround in the industry just isn’t possible until more journalists find homes in bullpens, courtrooms, and school board meetings again.

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