Sunday, August 05, 2007

Saying no to 'abandonistas'

Calls for newspapers to abandon or rapidly decommission their printed products are commonplace in the echo chamber of the journalistic blogosphere – suggestions arising from a combination of enthusiasm, ignorance and shallow thinking.

Many of these voices belong to otherwise insightful people who correctly recognize the enormous power and potential of digital, networked, distributed journalism but then leap to a conclusion that isn’t there: that in order to embrace a new order, we must quickly abandon the old. (Often their pronouncements remind us of Isaiah Berlin's warning against those who care more about whether their ideas are interesting than whether they are true.)

It’s easy to view the world from an “either/or” perspective, but that’s often the wrong approach. Albert Einstein famously observed,“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” The abandonistas are too often doing just that.

The printed newspaper retains enormous strength. Half the adults in the country read a newspaper yesterday. Half. Fifty percent. That’s a powerful platform; it reaches a vast audience, delivers satisfying results for advertisers and – not incidentally – produces revenues that in companies like ours still add up to healthy, double-digit profit margins.

The only conceivable reason to abandon that would be because continuing precludes our shift to the digital future we all know awaits us. But does it?

Au contraire. The legacy, reach and profitability of printed newspapers actually underwrites that transition, strengthens our journalism and adds depth and texture to our content in ways that can keep us at the center of the new media landscape.

What’s more, a properly tuned and focused daily paper can provide an attractive complement to the continuous, multimedia news report we’re learning to produce. An intelligently designed and focused newspaper that serves as a summary, briefing and orientation to help people manage the rest of their information habit will be part of the news landscape for a long, long time.

Even while we’re still learning how to do this, our hybrid combination of printed and digital journalism reaches an audience that is steadily growing larger. You’ve heard this here before, but let me say it again:

More people want what we produce today than wanted it yesterday. This is certainly not the profile of a dying business.

Yesterday’s newspapers often produced a 40% profit margin, but things changed; today’s are closer to 20%. Yesterday’s papers, facing few rivals, reached 60-70% of their markets; with powerful new competitors, today’s are closer to 50%. Well, so what? That’s still healthy reach and profit, and smart companies are using it to fuel the transition from a “one-product-once-daily” past to a “hybrid-continuous-targeted” future.

People who mistake transition for a terminal decline are making the wrong bet.

Just five years ago, probably 95% of the effort in our newsrooms focused on producing tomorrow morning’s newspaper. Our transition has been swift and striking; I can't fix a precise percentage today, but it’s dramatically lower. Papers like the Kansas City Star post updates to their website 50 or 60 times a day; video-ready reporters at the Merced Sun-Star are as mo-jo as anybody at any Information Center. Unsurprisingly, those are among the many McClatchy operations growing total audience at a healthy pace.

To paraphrase William Gibson, our future has already arrived; the job now is to make sure we distribute it evenly across the company.

I’ve recently been talking in newsrooms about ideas for what kind of printed newspaper fits best into our emerging hybrid future, and I’ll post some ideas about that here shortly.

Start by thinking about this: if half the adults in the country are still using a product mainly designed to serve pre-internet interests, how many would read a paper specifically tuned and focused as an information-management tool that complements their other news sources?

2 comments:

  1. Great subject for our newsrooms, particularly now, as many of us are in the midst of redesigning newspapers for the conversion to new web widths. A key here, it seems, is anticipating the needs of core readers and making sure those needs are not only met, but improved upon. Many core print readers have been slow to use the Internet, but nevertheless are finding purposes for it (email, sharing photos). As we improve their experience, must also improve the experience for readers who now divide their time between print and online.

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  2. Great post. Absolutely right.

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