What didn’t work (but could): newspapers

What I’m listening to while I type: Songs from the Shipyards

A little while back, I wrote about newspapers’ failing business model and its dependency on advertisers:

The issue is that the cost of producing a newspaper has outstripped earnings from newspaper sales since the 1880s. Since when, the business model has become almost entirely dependent on the delivery of an audience to advertisers – and the valuing of that audience according to both demographic and size.

I argued news is not the product newspapers sell; the attention attracted by news is what’s being sold. The business of newspapers is in providing an effective channel for advertisers.

So much we already know. You get people’s attention; you can sell them something.

The problem is that journalism is used to attract that attention – and both journalists and consumers of journalism would like journalism to be something rather ‘purer’, rather better than it is. But that kind of journalism is expensive to produce and most of the newspaper industry is failing financially.

We’re doing a lot of arguing about what newspapers should do next, but not making much progress.

His Girl Friday (1940)Newspapers have to do a lot of different things to get the attention they can sell to advertisers. They have to find and tell stories people want to read about; they have to present stories in a way that will make people want to read them; they have to deliver those stories so people can read them.

It’s a lot of effort when they could just stick with reader offers, holidays, dating and gambling. They should get into porn (I mean get into it properly)  it’s where the money is.

Telling those news stories is generally what we think of when we talk about journalism. But there’s no direct profit for newspapers in producing journalism; it’s a cost absorbed by the business in order to build or maintain the brand.

To reinvent the newspaper industry we need a business model where journalism is the product being sold, or the asset being valued.

A couple of definitions before I go on.

By “newspapers” I’m talking about the newspaper brand and its output, delivered through print and any other media.

By “journalism” I’m talking about, er…

Deuze argued that our understanding of what journalism is is pretty much based on what journalists themselves think it is:

scholars refer to the journalists’ professionalization process as… the emerging ideology served to continuously refine and reproduce a consensus about who was a ‘real’ journalist, and what (parts of) news media at any time would be considered examples of ‘real’ journalism. These evaluations shift subtly over time; yet always serve to maintain the dominant sense of what is (and should be) journalism… defined as a shared occupational ideology among newsworkers which functions to self-legitimize their position in society.

So journalists by and large define journalism according to what we do, or more accurately how we wish it was done. I’ve had that conversation hundreds of times in newsrooms – is this story “journalism” or PR puff? Is that person a good journalist or a sharp writer?

But what’s the value proposition for journalism to its customers?

If the primary customers for newspapers are advertisers, the value of the journalism to advertisers is its effectiveness in attracting consumers of journalism by type and quantity.

The journalism changes in reponse to market needs, to ensure the right consumers are reading the stories they want to read. It’s those consumers of journalism that value it the most.

I’m going to wander back to the newsroom…

Opening scene, His Girl FridayAt one newspaper where I was news editor I would spend four or five hours a day in news conferences, arguing over stories. There were generally around eight people in that room with ‘editor’ within their job title.

At two newspapers, I’ve sat in a conference group sometimes twice the size of the reporting team outside. We’d agree how a story should be delivered but wouldn’t be the ones delivering it.

Journalism is an old industry. It’s weighed down with historical ways of being and doing: there are still too many blokes in their 50s talking to each other.

So here’s my first suggestion: squash newspapers.

Go for flatter hierarchy, much more weighted towards the activity that’s being paid for.

Concentrate decision-making time on premium activity and manage majority activity through SOPs and supervisors.

Here’s my second suggestion: rethink what newspapers are paid to do.

Newspaper businesses have become really good at giving away their assets.

Not just sticking journalism they charge for in one outlet (print) onto another outlet (web) for free, but giving away valuable customer data (cookies and tracking) to other companies, and pretty much offering the PR industry an open door to talk to their readers.

Newspapers’ biggest asset is their readership. They use journalism (mostly) to attract that readership. The readership attracts advertisers. But by rethinking how their readership is “sold”, newspapers can revalue journalism and mine additional income streams.

If most of the work in newsrooms is making interesting news stories out of PR, why don’t newspapers see that as something they’re good at and can charge for?

The PR industry is worth $10bn globally, it’s growing as the press is shrinking yet a good chunk of that $10bn is being spent on getting PR stories into the press – for free. Doesn’t make sense as business model: close that open door and charge for entry, at least to the regulars.

Here’s my next suggestion: cut the number of journalists.

'The Front Page' (1974)The news industry really doesn’t need thousands of journalists with the same qualifications, it needs better job demarcation for the work that needs doing: fewer journalists and editors and more copywriters and subs.

So (bastardising Google’s 70-20-10 rule) have 70 percent of the newsroom doing 70 percent of the activity: subbing or writing news and information – that non-original news, entertainment, and information that forms the bulk of content.

Much of it originates in public and private sector PR. Much of that could be paid for. Doesn’t mean it has to be bad for the reader, or that the writer/sub doesn’t still get to ask questions to get a clearer story, or work out what’s most important to the reader. Do this job better and newspapers will be replacing fewer journalists with robots.

Put 20 percent of resources into “premium” journalism, the stuff that makes a newspaper’s reputation, produced by a smaller number of journalists good at finding real stories. Journalism needs to be free, newspapers don’t and by-and-large aren’t. Give the journalists and editors freedom to ferret out a smaller number of real stories instead of filling text boxes.

Finally, put ten percent of company resources into R&D.

Here’s one suggestion: Stop giving away data.

Block third party trackers, either to sell readership data yourself or to sell non-tracked web access to readers as a premium service.

And while you’re at it, find out what – or if – readers would really pay to receive ad-free, PR-free journalism.