The advent of the Internet has been revolutionary for newspapers, but so far, the industry is still searching for viable digital-publishing models. In Part 1 (July/August, IT) of this two-part series, we examined why newspapers have been migrating toward online delivery and how well they are doing in the rapidly changing media environment. Here, Part 2 covers alternative visions for the future of newspapers.
The imminent death of daily newspapers has been a topic of discussion in media circles for years. The biggest wakeup call was the recent decision of Knight Ridder to liquidate in March 2006. This company seemed to have everything going for it--papers in major markets such as Miami, Dallas, Silicon Valley, and Philadelphia; the synergy of a 32-paper chain; a national news wire; and industry technology leadership dating to its 1988 acquisition of Dialog and its more recent creation of the RealCities network of local Web sites. Outside shareholders who were impatient with the Ridder family's vision of an electronic future forced the sale in response to declining profit margins.
Revisiting the Basics
Circulation declines, staff cutbacks, disappointing financial performance, proliferating competition for readers and advertisers, waning public respect for the institution, and declining influence of newspapers in a given community do not bode well for the health of the industry. The popularity of newspaper Web sites does not yet translate into large enough revenues to cover costs.
Recent soul-searching in the industry has intensified, so newspapers have been revisiting the basics:
* Should newspapers allow readers to benefit from the paper's editorial expertise as it gathers and selects the news that the editors consider to be the most important and relevant, essentially becoming a filter?
* Should the newspaper's primary role be analytical (to interpret the news and to present one or more viewpoints on it)?
* Should newspapers focus on a new role made possible by technology, engaging the public in conversations about events and issues that matter to them?
* How can newspapers make the transition between the hard-copy past and the electronic future?
* What new services can newspapers offer advertisers (who used to represent 70 percent of newspaper revenues) to counteract the eBays and craigslists?
* How can newspapers be profitable and honor public-service commitments when so much information is free?
Alternative Visions and Realities
Newspapers are pursuing many alternative visions to find the right mix. Pure realism dictates that newspapers should leverage competitive threats to their advantage. Here are some responses:
* Partnering with organizations that appear to be competitors, as Gannett Co., Inc.; Tribune Co.; and Knight Ridder (now The McClatchy Co.) did in investing in ShopLocal.com, CareerBuilder.com, Cars.com, Apartments.com, and the online news index Topix.net
* Incorporating reporters' blogs into the papers' offerings, and, in a few cases, opening up newspaper Web sites to reader reporters who present their viewpoints or focus on local community issues
* Expanding the "tool chests" of their journalists to include photography and audio and video skills as well as increasing their multimedia capabilities so that the newspaper Web sites and services can offer a range of media
Some people contend that newspaper content will migrate online or that newspapers will have to adopt the ad-supported TV model to survive. In fact, such print dailies can be profitable now. Public opinion research from The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press noted that charging any fee is a turnoff, especially for young readers who are used to free information on the Web.
There is a fast-growing movement toward not charging the public for either Web or hard-copy content, concentrating on packaging audiences and information for advertisers, and eliminating as many barriers to readership as possible, including free registration. …