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Newspapers Aren’t Dead, Selling News is Dead

Nespapers JournalismDave Winer, Robert Scoble, Scott Karp, Mathew Ingram, and a ton of others have been writing about Robert’s blog post, Newspapers are dead.

I’ll take it a step further… selling news is dead.

There. I said it. Having worked for over a decade in the newspaper industry, I mean it. The fact is that newspapers don’t sell news anymore in as much as they sell advertising. The news has been secondary to newspaper sales for quite some time. Newspapers went color to sell advertising. Newspapers automated pagination systems to sell advertising. Newspapers built new newspaper plants for better quality advertising. Newspapers now sell direct mail, magazines, custom publications… not because they sell news but because it increases advertising revenue.

Many journalists will be angered by my words. I’m truly sorry because I have great respect for journalists. Walk into any news room, though, and you’ll see budgets cut, editors working short-handed, newspapers filling gaps with AP content. Publishers are publishing ads, not news. News is the filler in between ads because ads bring in money.

Many circulation strategies at newspaper actually position the ads more than the news… “Buy the Sunday Newspaper and you’ll receive over $100 in Coupons.” I can’t imagine how that makes a journalist feel… being misplaced by a 25 cent coupon for toilet paper.

I really don’t think this is much different than the evolution of other industries, though. Imagine how skilled a machinist had to be to pull out micrometer sets and build automotive engines. Those machinists were artists, learning their trade over many years, attending trade schools, learning advanced metallurgy, mathematics, and heavy machinery operation. Guess what? They have been replaced, too. CNC Mills and robotics have replaced skilled technicians. One can now design on a computer and instantly output their parts with no human intervention.

Does that mean that Machinists aren’t respected? Of course not. They’ve just simply been replaced. Journalists are being replaced, too. I know, I know… journalists are responsible, educated, they verify sources, they are responsible for their words. These are all true but economics is what ultimately wins. Watch the evening news or read a newspaper and I guarantee you’ll see at least one reference to a blog, an uploaded video, or a web site. The news is no longer being discovered and disseminated by journalists, it’s being discovered by me and you and disseminated through the Internet.

What’s really happened here is that the consumers’ need for buying news has gone away. Journalists and newspapers were the medium between society and the news. There were no other choices. Now the choices are infinite and cheap. Has quality wained? Perhaps. It’s a lot like comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Brittanica. Wikipedia has exponentially more information and doesn’t cost a penny. Brittanica has a fraction of the articles but better quality. When was the last time you bought an encyclopedia? That’s your answer.

The truth is that I can write about Google’s new Blogbar. The post may have spelling and grammatical errors, may lack references, may not be as entertaining as it would be on the Times Technology page – but it reached thousands of readers who honestly didn’t care about those things. They appreciated that I wrote about it and are now using that content to improve their sites. It didn’t take a journalist to break the story.

The Internet is the new medium that is replacing news on papers and journalists. It’s somewhat sad, it’s a fantastic trade that is going to disappear. There will still be journalists, just not as many. There will still be newspapers, just not as many. Let’s face it, though. Newspapers will continue to find other means of selling advertising. It may not be ink on dead trees, but they’ll find a way.

Newspapers aren’t dead, selling news is dead.

9 Comments

  1. 1

    >Newspapers now sell direct mail, magazines, custom publications?

    I can so relate to that. Our twice weekly paper has more flyers in on Tuesdays than it does pages of news.

    Much like the music and movie industries the newspaper industry has to find new ways to sell itself – make it a daily experience that people don’t mind shelling out a 1.50 for.

    This goes even more so for the small town local newspapers

    • 2

      I love your point regarding local news. I still enjoy our Business newspaper here locally as well as my Community newspaper. They still have a great advantage over the net – their connection to the community.

      Ironically, all the large newspapers continue to sell to huge giants who decentralize the news further. Here in Indy, the Star is owned by Gannett. Gannett continues to cut local resources and try to push more to corporate through system integration. It’s cutting the paper off from the community, though. Suicide.

      It’s simply not worth it for me to buy the paper. I did so EVERY DAY for over a decade. I can honestly say that I’m no less informed getting my news for free online.

      • 3

        In Canada – especially Ontario all the small newspapers are owned by one of two media news giants. I don’t think there are any truely independant newspapers of any consequence left in the small to midsize towns or cities.

        This happned ove the last five to ten years where the two giants went on a buying spree. I think we really lost something valuable when that happened.

  2. 4

    Nice article! I don’t think that this should be a huge surprise- every since the web started killing classifieds newspapers have been in trouble, or should have at least realized trouble was on the way.

  3. 5

    The problem is newspapers have not SOLD the news for decades. Once there were newspaper wars over hot stories. When was the last war of this type anyone can remember?

    The newspaper’s top editor should also be its best salesperson and chief marketing officer. A trip to any large newsstand can prove that this is not the case in today’s world.

    Look at the front covers of the magazines on the newsstand compared to the front pages of the newspapers displayed there. One might argue that many of the magazines use “cheap 78-Ways-to-Refresh-Your-Sex-Life tricks” to sell readers. Still there is no denying that newspapers systematically under sell their news and feature content to readers. It’s almost as if we work to make the front page more boring and less relevant than it needs to be.

    Editors will argue that being “promotional” cheapens their enterprise. I would argue that the best, most important, investigative reporting that wins this year’s Pulitzer is of little value if the vast majority of the newspaper’s customers do not bother to read the series.

    We must get good at selling the news again. We must get good at telling readers what’s in it for them if they read.

    In the end we must be excited about the news and other content we are delivering daily, weekly and monthly ourselves and then communicate that excitement in an infectious way to those we hope to reach and influence with the news. If we as editors perform this task, the dollars will follow and newspapers (no matter how they get delivered) will thrive.

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