Monday, September 30, 2013

The future for newspapers and libraries: an electronic future, not for the adventure, but to play the game better

There was a good article in today's Washington Post (well, actually it appeared in today's PRINT edition, but was published on 27 September in the web edition, which, one might say, is part of the print problem). The article, "As Jeff Bezos prepares to take over, a look at forces that shaped The Washington Post sale" by Steven Mufson, gives a good overview of the last days, and years leading up to those last days, of the Post under publisher Donald Graham.

First a few facts pulled from the article that outline the major problems of the newspaper industry (one which Jeff Bezos will be challenged to overcome):

  • Print circulation way down at the Post: in 2013, there were 447,000 subscribers, in 1993 there were 832,332. That's a lot of people who don't feel the need for paper every day
  • Ad revenue: at it's peak (2005), the newspaper industry had $49.4 billion in ad revunue; last year that number was down to $22.3 billion (2012). That's a lot of money to make up with online ads; much of which went into totally new areas that didn't exist (e.g. Craigslist). As noted in the article, coupons, an important component of the "giblets bag" that arrives with the weekend paper (Saturday for home delivery folk, Sunday for all others) are making the first tentative moves to mobile devices (see one of many articles on the topic here at Business Insider). 

An underlying theme in the story is "where did the Post go wrong?" What could a have happened. What were the missed opportunities. The following 1992 quote from Robert G. Kaiser, then managing editor, sums it up:
"The world is changing with amazing speed ... The Post out to be in the forefront of this -- not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes. We'll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it." 
The Post had some changes, including the then innovative Digital Ink "adventure", but never quite hit it. Perhaps the "amazing speed" of change was more than anyone (and anyone at The Post) could imaging. Another quote, from yet another former WashPo managing editor, Steve Coll:
"I would say to people we had 10 or 15 years to figure this out. And I think Don [Graham, publisher of the WashPo] thought we had 20 years. It turned out we had five years."
The dilemma and road not taken by the Post is summed up by Mufsom: "Should it compare itself with the New York Times, a national publication, or crumbling big-city dailies whose business models were historically closer to The Post's?"

I, for one, am saddened to see The Post's national and international reach shortened by the Crisis in Journalism (really a crisis of business model). There is a need, and I think, a desire for the big-picture news story. International, national. The types of things the NY Times, Times of London, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal can provide. That is also a niche for The Post (and one that has started to slip with the newsroom cuts. 

Likewise, there is an intense need for local news. When a paper tries to be both, something has to lose out. Nothing worse than to see a local paper filled with wire stories better covered by one of the big papers. That's one reason I had high hopes for Patch. Patch is a hyper-local news service (e-only) run by AOL. Sadly, it seems to have missed the gate (and I deleted the app on my iPad when I couldn't get it to stop thinking I lived in San Diego!). As Mufson said of The Post: "Graham reiterated his mantra that the paper was and would remain a local business, with a still enviable local market penetration and local ads. Remember the Loudoun County fireman, he said, he’s our customer." But can a newspaper serve both and still be "major"? 

Well, public libraries are doing their bit to serve the hyper-local community. As readers move to electronic devices (and publishers refuse to work with libraries on a workable economic model), the public libraries will still have services to provide. In higher education, the library situation is a bit more murky. There are many new services libraries could provide, but will they be quick and agile enough to fill those spaces or will some other entity move into that space? 

One of the worst positions to be in is being loved and considered indispensable. You get comfortable and complacent. Afraid to take those chances, not just for the adventure, but for survival.

Some past posts on newspapers and such:

The new Washington Post logo, from Outacontext:

The New Washington Post Logo

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