If you build it, they will read it

printing pressThe world of newspaper journalism has been turned on its head lately with bankruptcies, layoffs, the discontinuation of print editions, the discontinuation of papers altogether — and many people seem to be struggling with how to help the industry survive.

I’ve been to several meetings in the past few days talking about the new, digital face of newspapers and how this is the way to be successful. I’m not sure I buy it, though, because I’m not sure newspaper publishers have figured out their problem: if you don’t give people a product they want to read, they won’t read it, no matter what flashy format you deliver it in.

There was a great blog entry posted recently about the 16 things people learn in journalism school. It is an awesome reminder to those in the industry about their responsibilities in wielding the power of the pen, which we all know is truly mightier than the sword.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that the 16 basic rules outlined in that blog are often pushed aside lately. I’ve seen it in the journalism schools themselves, as the basic concepts of excellent reporting and writing are ignored to make room for the teaching of delivery methods.

While I was at one of the aforementioned meetings, I was tweeting about changes occurring at the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, which both have recently scaled back home delivery to three days per week, have launched E-editions and are working on E-reader versions to be available on the Kindle within a few weeks. As I like to do while tweeting events, I started posing questions to start some discussions.

I thought one of the most compelling comments was this one, from @yasky:

They can’t control delivery method as they are no longer the gatekeepers of information. We may transition, but by choice only.

Perhaps that’s the biggest problem newspaper publishers are dealing with. They are faced with increasing expenses and decreasing advertising revenue. They are faced with a 24-hour news cycle that won’t wait for the ink to dry on the paper anymore. And they are faced with a fickle audience that will not pay for news when it’s available for free in so many other places. But, the harsh reality is just as @yasky said: they are no longer the gatekeepers.

Journalists as a whole, be they in print or broadcast, used to be the primary sources for news and information across the globe. Now, I often don’t hear about news first from a professional journalist, I hear about it from someone who has posted it on Twitter or Facebook or a blog. Certainly, that first person to post a news item may be directly involved, but often they are initially hearing the news from a professional journalist. However, that’s where the control stops. The spreading of news and information has gone global, it has gone viral, it has gone out of the hands of newspaper publishers and into the hands of their (former) readers.

So, the big question is, how do they turn those former readers back into subscribers? First, they need to remember the 16 things they learned in journalism school from the blog post linked above. Then, they need to learn to produce stories so well-written and compelling that people want to read them. They need to build a newspaper that, regardless of delivery method, people feel they cannot do without because it is offering information not found elsewhere. They need to, once again, become the gatekeepers of information that no one else has the time or the talent to uncover and write about.

I’m certainly not professing to have all the answers that are going to save the newspaper industry — no one should be foolish enough to claim that talent. But I am willing to suggest certain steps that newspapers should consider taking immediately:

— give the readers what they want and need;

— give the readers something they can’t find elsewhere;

— create a mecca for news and information that is credible and reliable.

If you build it, they will read it.

(Image courtesy of the BBC.)

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7 comments on “If you build it, they will read it

  1. Great article — and very insightful. I still enjoy reading a paper with my morning coffee. I also enjoy watching my eldest daughter, Gabi, clamor for the Sunday Comics — and love witnessing her joy of reading & learning.

    The key for the “print” versions of News is just like you say — make it relevant & unique. It can’t just be a reprint of yesterdays news I already read! That’s just frustrating!

    I read the LSJ because of the interesting LOCAL writers, the LOCAL sports teams, and even the LOCAL morons writing their diatribes to the editor. LOCAL is the key. I also want the paper to provide information on LOCAL businesses that are unique, or growing — and uplift our spirits…. Unfortunately, many of the local papers are cutting back on exactly the things I mentioned above — and becoming a regurgitation of yesterdays wire-feeds….

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    • Kurt, I think it’s great you enjoy reading the paper with your morning coffee and even better that your daughter is learning by watching you do that. I miss the days when I used to be able to sit with a morning paper and do that. It’s not the papers’ fault, it’s mine for being too busy or simply too stubborn to make the time to do that anymore. In our hurry-up world, I’m wondering if we’ve lost the ability to slow down and smell the newsprint, so to speak. We all talk about how great vacations are because we can do that. But can’t we do that at home, too? We just have to make the commitment.

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  2. Good post, Ari. You seem to have hit the nail on the head when it comes to a big issue leading to the demise of the traditional newspaper. Kurt also makes a great point when he says that LOCAL news and information is really what readers are after.

    In my mind, it won’t be long before there are only a few newspapers in the country left that focus on national/world news or stories coming through the AP wire. Smaller newspapers will have to focus on local news to survive, or they will need to become more like magazines with such issue or interest-focused content that they will appeal more to audiences with specific interests than audiences that just happen to live in a geographic area.

    My generation (for the most part) doesn’t even view a printed newspaper as a top news source anymore. If I pick up a newspaper it’s because I want to do the crossword, not because I want to read.

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    • Becky, I think you make a good point about how your generation doesn’t see a printed newspaper as a top news source anymore. What do you see as a top news source — and does it have the same level of credibility and loyalty that older folks found in a local newspaper on their doorstep every morning?

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      • I’d say a lot of people my age go right to the internet for news. If we have feelings about a credible newspaper, we are likely to visit that paper’s site for the news. For example, I like the Detroit Free Press, I believe that in general, it does a good job of covering Michigan News. So, I’d much rather visit the Free Press website, or follow it on Twitter to read the daily headlines. Why buy a newspaper when it’s online for free? Why have a physical newspaper clutter my desk and make noise when I turn the pages when I can have the website up on my computer and periodically check headlines and browse content?

        Another big issue for my generation is that news is a constant stream of information. For many people in my parents’ generation or older, news was something that was delivered to your doorstep in the morning and after you read it, you went on with your day and waited for tomorrow’s news. For my peers, we know that news is happening every minute of every day and the internet gives us instant access, at all times, to the latest information. In many cases, between the time a paper is printed and the time I read it, information will have already changed. It is also very easy to pick and choose exactly what types of news we want to read (or listen to, or watch through video) which doesn’t expose us to clutter we don’t want.

        My point is long-winded, but the idea is that online news is credible for my generation, because growing up in a tech world, we’ve learned how to decipher what’s accurate and what’s not. If I can find the same information on more than 3 news sites, I assume it’s accurate.

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  3. Many of you have never felt the fresh paper in your hands still warm from the press, (yes.. “hot off the presses” means something)and might not appreciate the beauty of “web press” apparatus. Years ago I tried my hand as a publisher, and failed. I suppose looking back at it, it was my first attempt at “blogging,” because I saw things the local paper wasn’t reporting, figured I had some cool ideas on how to present coupons for advertisers, and plodded on forward with interviews, local perspective, and opinions.

    The paper was actually well received, and it was a FREE periodical. (10,000 copies of the first issue WAS a mistake.. lol) The ads barely paid for it, and there was a lot of room for improvement on the advertising revenues, (like actually asking the advertisers to pay would have helped.) but I didn’t have staying power, and nearly bankrupted myself. The final blow however, was two months prior to my last (July 4th) issue, the local paper “resurrected” a name of a paper that had been gone for 50 years, and followed my format to some extent. This “new” paper still exists 12 years after my last.

    There can be money in print yet. It is all in the formatting and presentation. The overhead of a large organization which must shrink or grow with conditions is the real battle. When the news or Free Press had HUGE subscriber bases, they made money, but the organizations of employees accepting contracts at that time are not nearly as amiable to accepting the new realities when the hammer falls, and changes need to be made.

    Technology and innovation CAN fix this for the print media, but I suspect the V2.0 management is trying harder to make the digital side a little more profitable, and attention to print might well be lost.

    Excellent post BTW.

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    • Jason, you make a good point about folks with contracts always enjoying the good times but sometimes not wanting to deal with the reality of the bad times. I also agree with you that people are so intent on making the E-editions profitable and are focusing so much energy on the new delivery methods that they may be pounding the nail in print’s coffin. But is that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is print going to die because they ignored it? I know some people who dislike the new printed versions of the Freep and the News because of their layout. I’ve tried the E-editions and I don’t like them — they seem clumsy. Several others I know have commented about it the same way. I suppose only time will tell.

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