Newspapers: Don’t Blow It Again

By: Steve Outing

All right, enough already. Stop wallowing in self-pity. Squash the pessimistic attitude. Get out there and fight! The Internet is still the brightest thing going.

That’s the message I picked up — and I need a pep talk as much as anyone else in this business — at last week’s Interactive Newspapers Conference & Trade Show (an event organized each year by Editor & Publisher) in San Jose, Calif.

The event’s headline speakers were all unabashedly optimistic. That’s no different from other years, of course. Yet I believed their words to be genuine — and there are strong arguments to be made for listening to their advice. It’s been very easy to beat up on new media lately, but I believe the online media skeptics are offbase.

Futurist Paul Saffo summed things up nicely. His message:

      * The newspaper industry failed miserably in its first go-round with the Internet — indeed, newspaper executives’ performance in figuring out a credible, profitable model to participate in the Internet boom was “criminal.” “There’s a whole generation of newspaper executives who should be fired,” said Saffo, because they could only see new media through an old-media lens.

      * We (in developed countries) are well on the road to the point where digital consumption of information will be greater than consumption of printed information. No, paper isn’t going anywhere, but it will soon be overtaken. (As Saffo put it, horses didn’t disappear when automobiles were introduced, but they weren’t used as much for transportation.)

    * The newspaper industry, in particular, is well positioned to take advantage of the next wave. But it will require taking risks and striking out to find what’s on the horizon — and embracing it.

A common theme heard throughout the conference — as told by Saffo as well as many other speakers and participants — was that the newspaper industry has got to “think different” from now on. We haven’t done a good enough job of casting aside the old metaphors — of the notion, which underlies so many news Web sites, that the core idea is primarily to reproduce print content online, while paying lip service to producing unique content designed for the Internet.

Indeed, the current “convergence” trend in a sense pushes us toward that print-content-on-the-Web model. Legacy-media newsrooms produce content that is disseminated across multiple platforms — but not enough attention is paid to making sure that the content is designed to fit the specific medium.

While the economies of newsroom convergence are important (and thus convergence is probably inevitable), we can’t allow ourselves to let old-media ways dominate new-media platforms.

Why not? As several smart speakers at last week’s conference noted, the kids of today won’t tolerate it when they grow up. If there was a message that came through loud and clear in San Jose last week, it is that kids today expect to interact with their media.

From playing interactive online games, to using instant messenger (IM) services to communicate with friends, to interacting with their television (by having control over when programs are watched, and skipping commercials with devices like TiVo and ReplayTV), today’s kids expect their media to offer a two-way street of communication.

A safe assumption is that when today’s children and teenagers reach adulthood, they’ll not be tolerant of media that’s one-way, that’s not interactive. They expect to be able to manipulate media content, and to share it with others. The one-way conversation of a printed newspaper won’t do — thus print’s prospects for the young digital generation are not promising. Newspaper Web sites and other newspaper digital media formats likewise cannot afford to perpetuate the one-way model. They’ve got to become more interactive.

Making sites more interactive is something I’ve been preaching in my writing for a long time. But after this year’s Interactive Newspapers conference, I’m even more convinced of the correctness of that advice. Why? Because we’ve reached a point where digital media and the Internet are mainstream mass media. And because a generation is aging that has known nothing but life with the Internet — life with interactive media, which young people have embraced as their own.

Want to prepare for the future where digital information will be more prevalent than print? Then listen to and watch the behavior of today’s children.

Grrrr! Get aggressive!

If the newspaper industry doesn’t want to repeat its performance in the first Internet up-cycle, it needs to get aggressive as the digital/Internet revolution enters Round 2. So said Steve Rossi, president of Knight Ridder’s newspaper division, who gave the lead-off speech in San Jose last week.

Rossi’s advice: experiment frequently and aggressively. “Fail fast, fail cheaply,” was his most memorable line. In other words, look at the next wave of digital technologies heading our way and devote resources, talent, and money to experimenting with them.

Should newspaper Web sites be profitable right now? “That’s premature,” Rossi told the crowd. What’s more important, he suggested, is gaining the dominant position in digital media for our brands — in the way that Yahoo! and eBay did during the Internet’s Round 1, and newspaper companies did not. Research is what’s important in digital media today, not misguided short-term runs at profit.

I can’t help but wish that more newspaper executives thought like Rossi — though obviously not all have command over resources as rich as Rossi controls at Knight Ridder. At this particular point in the evolution of newspaper new media, we need leaders who can resist the short-term pressure for profits, who realize that digital media is immature, and that productive business models will emerge in time.

Some in the newspaper industry look at the Web and are discouraged by the environment and its poor prospects for profitability. But the Web is only part of digital media’s future. Saffo implored us to investigate such burgeoning technologies as 802.11 wireless networking (high-speed wireless connections for computers and portable digital devices that will bring us untethered broadband content in public places, as well as the home). Such technological breakthroughs will have a profound impact on digital media, edging it even faster toward the day that digital information outnumbers print.

There’s a lot more going on. Keep your eyes alert for the next big thing. Peer-to-peer networking. Digital paper. 3G and 4G mobile communications. Each of these, though external to the media industry, will impact media profoundly.

To date, the newspaper industry has understandably focused much of its new-media effort on the Web. But listen to the voices telling you that there are other promising digital opportunities. (Jupiter Media Metrix suggests that mobile content will bring in more money than Web content in a few years — and consumers are more likely to pay for mobile content than for Web content.)

Take the long view. The news industry can’t afford the price of taking the short view. That’s the news from San Jose.


Letter to the Editor

Randall Scasny, who regularly writes on media topics, commented on my recent column, “Industry Must Cooperate To Save News Sites“:

“I read your article and felt compelled to respond to your call.

“There’s nothing wrong with your idea. It surely wouldn’t hurt. I think consumers would at least see some value in paying 10 bucks a month for all the paid-news content on the WWW, more so than paying the same amount for one measly Web site’s paid content.

“Will they do it? More pointedly, will the ISPs allow it?

“Unfortunately, too many consumers (on- and off-line) don’t read the fine print, hence, they would probably assume their ISP subscription increased 50%!! (I pay 20 bucks a month for Earthlink.) So, will they switch ISPs, etc., etc. I don’t want to touch that issue. I have a more pressing one.

“I think your article misses the point — by a yard.

“In my view, the whole reason why online-news users do not see value and have been resistant to paid content is because of this ‘cornucopia’ of free news content.

“It’s like the old saying: too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. (Or, we all would like to have free sex all the time but we know that’s an adolescent fantasy; adults know that things of value — true love — should not be easy, therefore, and when they aren’t, they are meaningful and have great value.)

“Throw that on top of the poor job online journalists, no, I should say press-release copy editors, and you get the pickle online news business have got themselves in.

“What do I mean? Recently, did a story on the Commerce Department’s new study about half of the U.S. population has adopted the Internet. A short, sweet, press release. Go to and you get the same story. Same copy editor, with a little more time. More details but no questions that a legit journalist would ask.

“I read both stories and came away with this: if so many people are adopting the Internet, why are only 30% actually online consumers (as per the report) — the true audience of the advertisers of online news sites! No wonder the ad-revenue model of online news hasn’t worked.

“I’ll end this with an admission: I’m biased. I wrote a story about “paid content,” posted by, in November. I feel this text-based journalism must be replaced by a Webcast-based one to make it a viable business and to attract TV-style ad revenues.

“More important, the real problem of online news is not advertising nor paid content, or lack of. It is really the misrepresentation of the technology-adoption issue.

“Online news does not have enough ‘online consumers’ to make advertising or paid content work because the real consumers aren’t online or see no need for it. ‘Adopting’ an Internet connection in your home doesn’t mean anything by itself.

“Why? They may have a connection, but still too many people can’t use a browser; can’t solve simple computer problems … can’t even tell if their computer is connected!

“Why aren’t you writing about this bigger problem, framing it within the online news business, and provide a pathway to solving it? Instead of calling the industry to cooperate, why not call them to lead the charge of true tech adoption in order to save their businesses?”

Randall Scasny

Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the last few columns:

Product Placement On Newspaper Web Sites?, Wednesday, Jan. 23
Use Web To Supplement Your Print Edition, Wednesday, Jan. 9
Preparing For the Upturn, Wednesday, Dec. 19
Industry Must Cooperate To Save News Sites, Wednesday, Dec. 12
Tying Print To Online During Hard Times, Wednesday, Nov. 28
Using the Invisible Web In Research, Wednesday, Nov. 14
Previous columns

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