The future of newspapers and what comes next

I moved to the Washington D.C. area in 1978. Before I moved, I picked up a copy of The Washington Post from my local newsstand. I wanted a taste of the area that I would soon call home.

I found it fascinating. The newspaper in Daytona Beach (where I was living at the time) was unaffectionately known as The Mullet Wrapper, because about all it was good for was wrapping mullet. It has almost no news in it, and what “news” it had was dreadfully uninteresting. Even back then, you had to hunt for a movie review within its pages. As for culture and arts, there was no virtually no such thing in Daytona Beach. The Washington Post, on the other hand, was awash with news: national, international and local. It was hard to find a wire service article in the paper because they had staff deployed all over the world who were reporting it firsthand. The Post bulged with insightful information.

In 2009, The Washington Post bulges a lot less. Like most American newspapers, it’s declining and in its case it is particularly painful to watch. I still have it delivered daily. Retrieving the newspaper off my driveway first thing in the morning is reflexive. Most recently the Post’s business section was shrunk and subsumed inside the A section. The comics were shrunk too, from three pages to two, and were reduced further in size as well. The Metro section is looking thinner. The Sports section has trimmed coverage and reduced the number of stories and tables. In short, while it is not close to being The Mullet Wrapper, it becomes less valuable every day. Only on Sundays does the full glory of what The Washington Post used to be reappear.

The economics of the shrinking newspaper market give The Post little choice, although their actions are counterproductive. The more they shrink The Post, the less content it has and thus the less reason there is to buy the paper in the first place. The way things are going, one of these days I will be canceling my subscription too. They will have reduced the value of its information below what I am willing to pay. I sure don’t need to wrap any mullet.

Newspapers look like goners, but I am not so sure. The Washington Post has a good chance of surviving, and I expect certain other major papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal will as well, although they may evolve into electronic-only copies. I also expect many niche community newspapers will survive and possibly thrive. It is a lot less costly to deliver bits to a display screen than it is to physically print and distribute a newspaper, and electronic versions are doubtless far more carbon-friendly. I am dubious that any electronic version of a newspaper will provide quite the same experience as its physical manifestation. Newspapers can be browsed; they invite your curiosity. Electronic versions are far less so, simply because you are limited by screen size, resolution and portability.

Newspapers are all desperately searching for the right formula to survive in the information age. What form of electronic content would be good enough to make you want to spend a quarter or two a day (plus the advertising) to get it? Based on the websites I read none of them is quite there. My suspicion is that a completely new revenue model will evolve. The bad news for the newspapers is that they will probably will not control it.

What timely news might we pay money for? The closest on-line entity that resembles a newspaper to me is The Huffington Post. It is part opinion, part news (with a left-wing slant) and part entertainment/scandal sheet. Aside from its opinions, much of its content comes from elsewhere. Their layout has opinion (blogs) in the left column, news in the middle column and entertainment in the right column. It also has a big and somewhat garish headline (usually with an image) at the top of the page. In general, the most topical news is toward the top of the page. As you scroll down the news gets a little bit less interesting and less timely.

Huffpost though is missing a few things you really need to replicate the newspaper experience. First, it has no sports section. For many it is the only reason to buy a newspaper. What it is really missing though and what makes newspapers so valuable is timely local news. If a content provider like Huffpost could figure out a way to integrate sports, local reporting and reviews of the local arts scene, you might have something that is functionally equivalent to a newspaper.

Perhaps what is most valuable about Huffpost is its template. The right newspaper template for the web can serve as a substitute for any newspaper and Huffpost’s is real close. Once we agree on the best newspaper template, it might make perfect sense to let a company like Google provide the web hosting, but let various content providers fill up parts of the template. Let users decide the slant, if any, they want from their news. The Huffpost template would work just as well for The Drudge Report (which IMHO is a seriously ugly and garish site). Say you want your center column to have news from The Drudge Report. Matt Drudge could provide the content (and the advertising) for that portion of the site. Say you like your sports from ESPN. The sports section (say on the right column) could contain its news and ads.

Some of the more tech savvy of you are saying, “What you are describing is a portal. It’s already here!” That’s true, however it is hard for an out of the box portal to give quite the same look and feel as the Huffpost template. We need that right mixture of typography, white space and pictures. We also need editors to uphold quality standards and to select appropriate imagery, something sorely missing from most news web sites on the web. It would be jarring if the content style looked one way in one column from provider A and another way in another column from provider B. Hence, to work, content providers and editors would have to adhere to common stylistic standards, and we would need some style czars to make sure integrated content is consistent. We are not there yet.

Local news is a harder nut to crack. However, I can see teams of regional reporters forming local content syndicates. Just as many towns are now one-newspaper towns, many areas are going to be small enough where only one content provider could survive. Cities though should attract many local content syndicates. Hopefully, there would be enough revenue from the advertising stream to support a quality content, although that remains to be seen.

Would you pay extra for featured comics like Dilbert, prominent advice columnists, local reviews and obituaries? That remains to be seen, but I suspect many people would not mind paying a bit extra for these features providing they were already on the web page and they did not have to go hunt for them. Just as it is inefficient to subscribe to multiple local newspapers to get a full spectrum of news, it is also inefficient to visit multiple web sites to get your news. You will prefer it in one web space tailored to your needs. The time savings from having it in one place may be worth paying for.

Many like me still crave a quality newspaper. We are frustrated by having to visit so many web sites to get the information we want. We also want the opportunity to learn about issues beyond our parochial interests. The right metaphor for the electronic newspaper may be closer than we think and my suspicion is that Huffpost is close. You will know which one it is when it works. (I might add that Huffpost is now one of the web’s biggest web sites, which may say something.) Meanwhile, if I were an unemployed journalist I would be working with other journalists to create rich local content like what used to be available in our newspapers. Providing there is a market, being first to market could be the key to not just surviving, but thriving as a journalist in the 21st century.

The information age gives us many more information choices than we had before, and we are busier than every trying to keep up with them. We will still want timely and relevant summarized information that is well written, insightful and well researched. Give that to us on the web and we will not only come, but open our pockets too.

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