A Bridge to the Future: Instead of Printing the Paper Every Day, 'We Would Provide to Our Subscribers an E-Reader Such as a Kindle or a Nook. This Serves the Dual Purpose of Strengthening Our Print Editions on Key Days and Building an E-Reading Habit ...'

By Franklin, Timothy A. | Nieman Reports, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

A Bridge to the Future: Instead of Printing the Paper Every Day, 'We Would Provide to Our Subscribers an E-Reader Such as a Kindle or a Nook. This Serves the Dual Purpose of Strengthening Our Print Editions on Key Days and Building an E-Reading Habit ...'


Franklin, Timothy A., Nieman Reports


HANGING PROMINENTLY IN THE LOBBY of The Baltimore Sun building is a black and white photo of the legendary H.L. Mencken. Along with his visage is this quote: "As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings."

"Life of kings"? Nearly half a century after The Sun's icon uttered those words, there are few journalists at metro newspapers today who would echo that sentiment.

It doesn't have to be so.

The time for tinkering is past, however. Redesigns and the repackaging of print editions may temporarily stem declines. They will not save the franchise. Diluting the quality of journalism through quarterly budget cutting may ensure survival in the near term. It's a suicidal strategy over the long term.

It's been about three years since I occupied the editor's office, a glass-enclosed space at The Sun that included Mencken's old conference table, where he no doubt held court like a king. Since then, I taught journalism at Indiana University (IU) and now work as an editor at Bloomberg News.

Over that time, I've seen bright students voraciously consume news, most of it on their smart phones and laptops. And I've interacted with sophisticated Bloomberg readers who are willing to pay for quality news and data they receive on computer terminals and websites and via apps.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

What do these IU students and Bloomberg subscribers have in common? They're smart, discerning readers who crave trusted, credible news and information.

And many don't rely on print daily.

NO PRISONER TO PULP

If I were starting over in the top job at the Sun, knowing what I know now, my new mantra for the newsroom would be: We are a digital news operation with a print component. We are not a print newsroom with a digital component. That is the organizing principle that guides all of our decisions, I would tell my staff.

In Baltimore, it's time to break the daily ritual of printing newspapers and throwing them on driveways and stoops seven days a week. Yes, there's a risk in breaking readers' print habit. But that routine is in decline anyway. There are creative ways to maintain daily readership and build a bridge to the future.

My newsroom would acknowledge a painful reality. The print editions some days of the week--mainly Monday, Tuesday and Saturday--are so paltry they beg the question: Why am I paying for this? They're a physical manifestation of the decline of the business.

The considerable money spent on ink, paper, trucks, delivery agents, and news production those three days could be reinvested in improving the print editions on the other days. In the process, an entirely new delivery mechanism could be spawned.

Rather than manufacture and distribute print editions those three days, we would provide to our subscribers an e-reader such as a Kindle or a Nook. This serves the dual purpose of strengthening our print edition on key days, and building an e-reading habit for what will inevitably be an entirely digital future.

YOUR LOCAL 'SIRI'

My newsroom would aspire to be a service-oriented, one-stop news and information portal for the region. For a modest subscription fee, my newsroom would give readers different tiers of information based on the device they're using and their needs. Yes, frequent users would pay.

A breaking news desk would crank out headlines and two- or three-paragraph news accounts for smart phones and social media. This desk also would send news alerts via e-mail and Twitter.

At the same time, other editors, reporters, photographers and graphic artists would be creating in-depth and refined versions for print, tablet and website editions.

Our franchise Sunday newspaper will be meatier and a showcase for powerful local storytelling. …

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