Why people had to have a paper today, and what does that tell us about a business model?

Photo by Adam Fagan

Photo by Adam Fagan

I’m hearing and reading a lot today from people, largely inside the newspaper business, who say today’s coast-to-coast sellout of newspapers proves that people really do respect the power of the newspaper and that the public maintains an emotional connection with the paper that lives just below the surface, ready to be reborn with the right stimulus.

I think that overreaches. I do, however, believe we were shown some key facts today that just might serve as guideposts for newspapers looking to pump some life back into the print edition. Here’s what I believe we saw:

If you have created something people want…

And if it better suits their purposes in paper form than in electronic form...

Then they will buy your paper.

Notice there’s nothing in there about emotional connections or even journalism. The people buying papers today had an emotional connection with Barack Obama, not the paper. They used the paper as a permanent, undeniable record of the moment. Look how many people you can find in flickr posing with the paper, in the mirror image of a hostage photo taken to prove the captive was still alive on a particular day. The paper better serves this purpose than a print-out of a web page. It’s more real, it’s cheap, and it is easily portable through time.

Of course, we all joked that this solves the newspaper industry’s business model crisis: simply have Barack Obama win the election every single day from now until the end of time. Funny. But we need to ask how we can fulfill the logical flowchart above in smaller ways on a daily basis.

We spend so much time thinking about how to make digital better than print, but if we’re going to keep print alive or even turn it around, we need to ask ourselves in what ways can print be a better delivery vehicle than digital? Are there ways in which the daily paper can better suit some readers’ need than digital can? And, if so, is that how we are focusing our newspaper efforts?

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Why people had to have a paper today, and what does that tell us about a business model?

  1. Steve Goodman

    Print is great for:
    - long term information
    - long form information

    Long term information is useful (how do I do something?) and is frequently referenced. It makes a strong candidate for print because you might want it next to you while working to clarify your next step – printed recipes in the kitchen is a good example.

    Information that is detailed, and tells a complex, interwoven story is a good candidate for print. It's hard to read 40 pages of info on screen, let alone a 500 page novel. Also, you can finish reading a stroy and get a sense of closure on print. Online, there's always a million more links to click and explore. Obviously, books continue to sell well despite the digital revolution, though we'll see if Kindle or next gen readers change that game.

    For the newspaper business, I'd think that day to day coverage of local/regional/national/intl stories could phase completely into digital. Investigative work, interviews or anything else that is more than just reporting would seem like a natural fit for weekly print distribution, like the New York Times Magazine.

  2. Steve Goodman

    Exactly! Save your best stuff for print, and people will look forward to it. You can't offer all your content online and in print every day, and expect print to have much demand. But if you put your talented reporters on a story, and give them time to discover something truly substantive, I think you've got something special.

  3. Gus

    I think newspapers and newsrooms should have seen the writing on the wall 2-3 years ago — while they all still had larger staffs — and totally revamped the daily paper into a daily, shorter report for analytical stories and long-form pieces. And front-loaded the web with their breaking news efforts. In this fictional paper, there would be virtually no briefs. There would be stories — because the print reader would expect stories, not briefs.

    You could've pulled off a daily news magazine with the larger staffs of 3 years ago. It is much harder to pull it off today. No, I suspect within a few years (or less) most daily metros will reduce print publishing, at first, by two to three days a week. Then, four or five days a week. And go through a few more chaotic redesigns until they become news-magaziney print pubs that probably get published Friday thru Sunday, while the breaking news and daily coverage goes fulltime to the Web.

    Anyway, part of the reason that some people still cling to newspapers is because the editorial judgment that's evident on the daily front page, in and of itself, would often engage readers into talking about the relative importance of a story. How many readers over the years have heaped scorn on a paper's choice of front page stories? Sure, Web news readers complain about where news is on a website, but that seems more often to be a useability issue, rather than a news judgment issue.

    If an important story that was on the front page of most papers doesn't pop up on your RSS reader, whose fault is that?

    Anyway, great blog post. Will think about it some more.

  4. timwindsor

    Gus,

    Do you think that with current staff a news organization could produce 1. a weekly magazine of some heft – say 100 pages, 60/40 editorial, 2. a daily b/Express free-tabloid of 48 pages, 50/50 editorial, 3. some subset of the existing community weeklies, and 4. a suite of web sites, including a news site, community sites, an entertainment site and various classified sites?

    Let's assume, to use Baltimore as the example market, that all existing Sun print and online, Patuxent community paper, b free daily and Metromix staffs are combined and available for this effort.

    With approximately 275 – 285 journalists, could this happen? I'm going to say yes it could. And it would be a very good thing for a mid-sized market to try in the coming year.

  5. Mary

    I think this is just further proof that we need to have different plans and models for online and print products. Let print do what print does well, and let online do what online does well — maximizing each in its inherent ways. Instead we try to shove each product into the other, and readers are left with less.

  6. timwindsor

    Mary FTW.

    Of course, the devil in the details is what exactly those different media do best. The current trend in newspapers is to try to “capture” the casual or non-reader with shorter stories and brighter graphics, while the heavy readers are assumed to be the kinds of people who will stick around, no matter what.

    And yet, every heavy reader I've had a chance to talk to over the past three months has chewed my ear off telling me how much they hate the changes newspapers are making.

  7. stevegoodman

    This goes a way towards confirming my thesis that print is for depth of information; for reading. Trying to make print more like the web by USA Today-ing it displeases older readers, but it may very well “capture” casual readers. When I worked in DC, most people on the 8:30am metro were reading Express, which has the depth of a puddle, but a lot of coverage of TV, celebrities and fashion – but that was 2003 – 2006.

  8. stevegoodman

    This goes a way towards confirming my thesis that print is for depth of information; for reading. Trying to make print more like the web by USA Today-ing it displeases older readers, but it may very well “capture” casual readers. When I worked in DC, most people on the 8:30am metro were reading Express, which has the depth of a puddle, but a lot of coverage of TV, celebrities and fashion – but that was 2003 – 2006.

  9. Mary

    I think this is just further proof that we need to have different plans and models for online and print products. Let print do what print does well, and let online do what online does well — maximizing each in its inherent ways. Instead we try to shove each product into the other, and readers are left with less.

  10. timwindsor

    Mary FTW.

    Of course, the devil in the details is what exactly those different media do best. The current trend in newspapers is to try to “capture” the casual or non-reader with shorter stories and brighter graphics, while the heavy readers are assumed to be the kinds of people who will stick around, no matter what.

    And yet, every heavy reader I've had a chance to talk to over the past three months has chewed my ear off telling me how much they hate the changes newspapers are making.

  11. stevegoodman

    This goes a way towards confirming my thesis that print is for depth of information; for reading. Trying to make print more like the web by USA Today-ing it displeases older readers, but it may very well “capture” casual readers. When I worked in DC, most people on the 8:30am metro were reading Express, which has the depth of a puddle, but a lot of coverage of TV, celebrities and fashion – but that was 2003 – 2006.

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