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    10 Steps to Saving Newspapers

    by Mark Glaser
    June 11, 2009
    Image of old newspaper on screen from the "Newton Free Library":http://www.flickr.com/people/newtonfreelibrary/ on Flickr

    Being in the hospital on an I.V. for a number of days put me in touch with the suffering of newspapers. I was down but not out. I have polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and one of my cysts had ruptured, causing severe pain and the temporary loss of kidney functioning in my right kidney. Not fun.

    But while I was holed up there, I did have my iPhone and was able to keep in touch with the world via email, the web and Twitter. After nine days, severe boredom crept in and I decided I wanted to write a brief 10-step plan for newspapers to revive themselves and take out their collective I.V.‘s. But not having access to the blog publishing platform, I decided to just put the 10 steps in 10 tweets on Twitter at my feed @mediatwit.

    Create a bottom-up organization where innovation is encouraged and rewarded at the edges."

    People seemed to like them, and started to ask me where they could find them outside of my Twitter feed. I told them I would eventually post them here on MediaShift, but in the meantime, the momentum of the list took on a life of its own, and soon there was a permanent home for those tweets on QuoteURL and even on the Westside blog.

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    Comments also came in via Twitter, with some people rooting me on at my hospital bed and others noting that these tips could work for any local news outlet — not just newspapers. Agreed. I don’t think there’s anything in these steps you haven’t heard before. It’s just a moment of accumulated knowledge that I hope will be one more argument against the wrong-headed media mogul teeth gnashing that has led to legal threats against Google and aggregators as well as the monolithic push for pay walls.

    So here they are again, with feeling…

    10 Steps for Saving Newspapers

    1. Do custom small print runs targeted to neighborhoods and interests. Not daily.

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    2. Support local writers, reporters and bloggers; help market them, sell their ads; decentralize the operation.

    3. Replace circulation, printing, print production staff with tech, SEO, community managers.

    4. Find out what the community wants in real face-to-face meetings, not focus groups. Then do what they want.

    5. Use pro-am methods. Include community-contributed content edited and vetted by pros.

    6. Smart multimedia. Don’t do it just to do it. Use the right medium to tell the right story.

    7. Promiscuous revenues. From ads, niche paid content, donations, non-profit grants to directory listings.

    8. Produce mapping and database projects. Employ or train hacker-journalists.

    9. Meet regularly with local businesses to gauge their needs. Create online directories of local businesses.

    10. Create a bottom-up organization where innovation is encouraged and rewarded at the edges. Use good ideas from anyone.

    *****

    Of course, I don’t expect that it will just take 10 steps. Leave your own steps in the comments below, and I’ll add them to the list above if they make sense.

    And I’m happy to report that after nine days in the hospital, I was able to leave life on an I.V. behind and am recovering nicely at home. So metro newspapers take note: There is life after near death.

    Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

    Tagged: community future of news paid content print
    • How about invest in R&D?

      As the worm turned these last 5 years for traditional print media the inability of the news business to invest in solid research and development has been shocking.

      Sticking with traditional technologies and techniques while your core revenue stream declines is generally the hallmark of a failing business plan.

      There are many F/OSS technologies and plenty of techniques that news media could leverage to be more productive, drive costs out of their delivery and more efficiently generate content – some of which are being used by some enlightened organizations.

      Using a tool, though, is not the same as developing or modifying a tool. So far adoption of technology by print media seems mostly to be a one way street – using ‘blogs for instance, without improving the ‘blogging platform.

      For an interesting look at one possible trend I suggest you look at the CarrboroCitizen.com. This was an online hyper-local community paper that migrated to print media. It also is expanding its “bricks-n-mortar” operation.

    • The most important thing, all tech considered, is for the writers, contributors and editors to be involved in the local community. Second on the importance scale is to have experienced and qualified editors vetting the contributions. Ultimately opinionated news will kill itself off on the Web.

    • As the Print nut I am you can probably guess that I love number 1. Spot on! Just want to add that I think one of the communities of interest is in the high schools. But that’s a story for another time and place.

      In any case, sorry to hear about the problems and glad to know you’re ok.

    • Frankie

      Except for 8 and 10, I wouldn’t follow any of these.

    • Solitude

      Ludicrous.

      The public no longer is willing to settle for one way news. Had this article not had a forum for responses, I would not even have read it. (Even though the collapse of newspapers is a topic I am very much following.

      Nothing here addresses that weakness.

    • John

      Number one should be to re-invent newspaper web sites from shovel ware content from print products to breaking news, value added content and links and cross promote both!

    • Barbara Phillips Long

      Local business directories (item 9) might be more work than you think. A classified department manager once told me that the listings were a burden to maintain, which I took to mean they were barely cost-effective for the newspaper.

      The “regular meetings” may be more time-consuming than you think, too.

      To make the listings work, there needs to be enough income to cover the cost of meetings and list maintenance.

      Or, the overhead needs to be minimized by using e-mail reminders to obtain updated information for the listings in a format that can be transferred directly into the listings. Group meetings with 6-10 business people at a time may provide some networking, content for the site, and ideas for new services if someone can facilitate effectively.

      Mapping and database products interest me a great deal. I would like to see mapping tools for rural papers that are efficient and uncomplicated for small staffs; the map-database projects I’ve seen have been urban.

    • Mike Saunders

      As a frequent reader, I’m happy to hear you’re OK but incredibly saddened by this post.

      This was a visionary post…in 2005. Everything, with the possibly exception of No. 10, is being done at newspapers right now. Some of the steps are working at smaller papers because they’re far more nimble than major metro dailies.

    • Sorry you think that, Mike. I am not looking out into the future to be visionary with this post, just stating steps that newspapers can take to evolve.

      Please give me an example of a newspaper that is doing both steps 1 & 3. I realize that some newspapers are doing some of these, but doubt very seriously that they many newspapers are doing many of these. Seems much more sporadic to me. Would love to be proven wrong.

    • Andy

      Good hook, but almost nothing else here. Easy to write the bullets – but execution on these? I’m a circ person who feels it’s OK to discuss with other departments new ways of doing business, but your willingness to have strong but uninformed opinions in other areas of a newspaper does more harm than good.

      Last thing – point #4 alone seems to have enough loose ends associated with it to create a firestorm among editorial folks as written.

      Glad you’re feeling better, and hope the industry gets better, too.

    • Sorry, I just had to comment. I’m fed up with the same lame arguments being trotted out time after time.

      I don’t normally comment about stories like this, but I’ve just about had it up to here.

      I’ve been working in print journalism for the past 15 years or so, as a frontline reporter.

      From where I see it, salvation is not in local news. Local news, by definition, is small-scale, myopic and parochial. People can get their local news from anywhere, including the blowhard next door — and they do. Everyone’s covering local news — from the trashy 11 o’clock local TV news team to the tireless blogger who files from IWriteFromMyParentsBasement.com.

      Salvation lies in doing what no one else can, will or wants to do. And that is, provide a product that is both high in quality and value, that the competition — for whatever reason — has overlooked or isn’t bothering with.

      That means going against conventional thinking.

      That means longer, more in-depth stories, not shorter, TV-friendly soundbites masquerading as printed words.

      That means in-depth, well-researched stories about complex, divisive issues, coupled with cogent analysis and, yes, respectful debate in the op-ed pages.

      Print is a different medium than video. Got it?

      It means more national and, yes, international news. When was the last time you read something important, well-informed and meaningful about the war in Iraq? Afghanistan? How’s the drug war going in Colombia? Want a feel-good story, with larger-than-life themes worthy of classic literature? Report the real story of what happened to Ingrid Betancourt, in detail. Sure, Betancourt doesn’t live next door to you, but her story is as powerful and as universal as anything you’ll read in Dickens or Hugo. When was the last time you read something creative, inspirational and life-affirming about the environment — whether it’s conservation in Africa or a study of primates in the jungles of Borneo? What’s that? You don’t think people are interested? Really? No wonder your paper’s losing readers, and money.

      People are interested in this — trust me. They couldn’t be more interested, in fact.

      And no one else is doing it — with the possible exception of outfits like the NY Times, and even they are cutting back their overseas bureaus.

      Local news is cheap, simple, easy, inexpensive and, often, low-class. It’s small-time. You can get it from the free giveaway, or from whoever’s shouting the loudest at the Starbucks or Safeway checkout register. People can find out about their grotty mayor or local councilor just about anywhere. Why do local papers think they have some kind of monopoly on it — and, more importantly, why do editors and journalists who should know better insist on thinking the solution to their financial woes is to look more and more inward?

      It’s a big world out there, people. Hardly anyone in print is reporting about it. Gee, do you think there could be a market for it? You think?

    • Andy,
      Sorry you think the list does more harm than good. Why would point #4 cause a firestorm? Doing what a community wants would seem like a no brainer if you are going to serve them.

      Alex,
      I agree that there are a lot of people doing local news now, but that doesn’t mean anyone is actually doing it right. There are a lot of people competing in the local news space but I still can’t find one comprehensive online source for really local news online — even here in San Francisco.

      I agree that there could be a market for in-depth stories of a global nature, and GlobalPost is trying to do just that. But the larger trend is toward local outlets covering their local news and fewer local US outlets covering global news. Why? Because we have access to global news just by going online and reading outlets from afar.

    • @AlexS – I actually agree with you to some degree. Newspapers small and large around here are wasting their time and resources trying to replicate what small neighborhood news organizations like mine are doing – when instead, they should be taking on The Important Stories that they claim they’ve been doing all along (but generally haven’t). That would guarantee them a place in the new news ecosystem.

      But that said, there’s no need to denigrate the “tireless blogger.” I don’t use “blogger” as a term — I am a journalist — but we publish neighborhood news 24/7 in blog format. From our house. But it ain’t no basement and I ain’t no amateur. 30-plus years in newspapers, radio, TV and online news for organizations large and small, from the defunct Davis (CA) Daily Democrat newspaper to Walt Disney Internet Group.

      And what we are doing is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, far and away. Even the little stuff – reporting live from local festivals – has a direct impact on people’s lives, bringing them out of their house to come meet their neighbors and maybe make connections that will lead to something even bigger down the line. You don’t have to be Big Media to have Big Impact, even in a small way.

      And while I have it easy, flashing my creds, I also don’t want to sell short the not-so-credentialed who are doing neighborhood news in this town and rocking the house. Save your snark for somebody who deserves it, not people busting their asses to tell community stories that NEVER have been told before, whether they are 18-year-olds in their parents’ basements or a 49-year-old like me reporting from the couch or the car or the coffeehouse or the front row of the five-hour school-board meeting.

    • Laid Off Too

      Is the combination of Alex and Tracy’s approach maybe the way to go? Our local paper reviewed a week’s worth of court cases on a particular crime. They presented their findings, then went to other parts of the world to see if there was a better way to handle it. The series ran for 9 days. I don’t usually buy a paper, but I couldn’t wait to buy those issues.

      In summary, would an in-depth analysis of a local problem that occurs elsewhere (environment, crime, economy, etc) be the way to go? Since my background is computers, I defer to the superior media knowledge of others

    • i thought “custom print runs” already had a name: supplements.

      “support local writers”… is there any evidence that people prefer local opinion writers (i’m assuming the reporters are local anyway) over plain good ones?

      on point No 4, it has been my experience that readers rarely know what it is that they want from the paper, and when prompted, will offer generalities. this is fine as a guide, but i think the reader DOES offer opinion in a more specific way: subscription.

      here is my contribution. mainly, alas, it is on the cost side. this is because i think that a centuries-old business is mature enough to figure out the revenue side opportunities.

      – 60 per cent of the cost of producing newspapers (in india in any case) is newsprint. use cheaper quality newsprint. it’s up to 20 per cent cheaper and while the printing isn’t great it’s not that bad. get rid of GNP on weekend magazines, unless they’re profitable.

      – outsource desk functions for foreign pages/wire-led business pages/supplements. it is unlikely that you will have NYT-standard editing ever in india, but certainly the better editors there can match what’s available in many if not most local dailies

      – get rid of the fatties. i’ve seen the printline (what i think you refer to as tombstone) of 80-page magazines from america that name editor/managing editor/executive editor/deputy managing editor… what on earth do all of them do? not sure if this is the case with newspapers, but certainly my experience of 10 years editing papers in india has been that one may skim off at least 10 per cent of the fat (and promote a few kids).

      – get good opinion writers. it’s what separates the NYT and WSJ from other american papers online.

    • Three more ideas: News Centers –Rather than serve just as production facilities, newspaper offices could become service centers where citizens could interact and exchange news and information. Newsrooms of most daily newspapers – as pared down as they are – still embody some of the most robust and centralized news-gathering operations on the media landscape. So rather than being used just to prop up a failing print media business model, print newsrooms could be transformed into News Centers, where online news, streaming video, podcasts and even some print products would be created and disseminated. News Centers could host online chats and in-person events. They could sponsor webcast debates. These News Centers could become the virtual and actual town squares of the digital age.

      News Networks – Profit-making news operations of the future should focus on building networks, not just audiences. Once someone is in a group or “friended,” a community of interest can be identified, nurtured and eventually sold to advertisers. News Network sites could let readers build their own home news pages and choose which topics and stories to feature. Professional editors and media technicians could assist readers with their online writing and postings.

      News Staff – The emphasis for reporters would be on news-gathering, as opposed to writing or storytelling. Presentation and writing would be up to editors, bloggers, video producers and others who would be responsible for getting the reporters’ findings to the web. Once a storyline or issue were published by the news operation, “citizen journalists,” who were members of various network groups, could blog about it, comment, suggest follow-ups and even add relevant articles and original reporting themselves. Full-time coordinators would also be part of the news teams. Their job would be part-technical and part-organizational. They would be in charge of following the evolution of stories and issues, making sure that interested network participants stayed engaged.

    • John Ferrari

      Ever since I was a kid — which was a while ago — I’ve had this recurring occasional fantasy of seeing a local or national newscaster come on air and say, “Good evening … there really isn’t much worth reporting tonight; nothing’s new … thanks for tuning in and we’ll be back at 10″

      So my point is this: why are we always focused on what’s “new” rather than on providing a repository of information that’s important and relevant .. some of which might be “new” but a lot more of which won’t.

      I also could never figure out why radio in the days of “Top 40″ was so much in the business of rotating good music out of their playlists; I knew that I couldn’t be the only one who still wanted to hear this or that song even though it wasn’t “new” or “hot” … after all, the only thing that counts is whether it’s still something I want to listen to.

      Local news falls directly into the trap and expends so much energy reporting the latest fire, robbery, murder, etc. Who cares? Somebody might be interested in personal safety but that’s different, no? And they’re still doing weather … WHY are they doing weather? Does anyone really wait until 25 after the hour anymore to find out if it’s likely to rain tomorrow?

      Ok, sorry, we’re not talking about television here but much of the same thing happens in print media and, for that matter, with online media as well. It’s hit and run journalism. My instinct tells me that people would react well to stories that continue; they want stories coalesced into themes that matter to them. And they want flexibility in the depth offered. Each story should have a slider attached to it to adjust the zoom level, the resolution, the level of granularity. So for the financial markets maybe I want one month charts of the major indeces for the past month and that’s it. But perhaps on the Supreme Court nomination I want a lot of latitude to get background, criticism, current public reaction … and maybe I want to read the nominee’s actual opinions. Journalism that’s really working gives me all of that and more … and it gives me the flexibility to mobilize that information or data so that I can share it, contribute to it and access it again when I want to.

      It doesn’t really matter if we save “newspapers.” What matters is that we preserve the journalistic function and tradition and I think we only do that by leveraging not just technology but the people who make news, who report events, who format information, who archive and database content. We know from so many projects over the past 15 years or so that there is a vast and vibrant wealth of energy to be tapped in communities large and small … the new publishers and editors who succeed will do so by marshaling those resources to inform a culture of people ever curious about what the other humans are doing with their days.

    • consacepo

      I agree that there are a lot of people doing local news now, but that doesn’t mean anyone is actually doing it right. There are a lot of people competing in the local news space but I still can’t find one comprehensive online source for really local news online — even here in San Francisco.

      consacepo

    • This was a visionary post…in 2005. Everything, with the possibly exception of No. 10, is being done at newspapers right now. Some of the steps are working at smaller papers because they’re far more nimble than major metro dailies.

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