Newspaper cutbacks: The good news?

At the risk of being burned at the stake by my fellow journalists, I wanted to pass along a thought that occurred to me recently about the wave of layoffs and mass firings that has been rolling through newsrooms across North America — namely, what if this is actually a good thing? Please, hear me out before you arrive at my doorstep with pitchforks and torches.

In order to agree with me, you would have to admit that there are a lot of newspapers (and I know of many personally) that haven’t been moving quite as quickly as they might towards an online future. To a large extent, these papers have been insulated from the need to change by a healthy cash balance, a lock on local advertising markets, a magnanimous owner, a sense of entitlement, etc. (feel free to pick more than one).

What better way to force some change than by administering a large but hopefully non-lethal shock to the system?

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab)

7 thoughts on “Newspaper cutbacks: The good news?

  1. Mathew,

    You ended your recent posting (postulating that the newsroom cuts may help stimulate evolution) with:
    The only flaw in this argument — one I am willing to admit up front — is that this presumes that newspaper managers and executives actually know what the proper course of action is, and are only cutting those staff and duties they no longer require, while strengthening those areas of the paper that need more resources. The reality, of course, is that many newspapers are cutting in what are arguably the wrong places, or pushing forward with a completely unrealistic view of what their paper’s strengths and weaknesses are.

    I will admit that my theory requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief. And I’d like to note that I feel nothing but sympathy for the tens of thousands of journalists who have been and are continuing to be laid off. But in some cases — not all, I will admit, but some — those layoffs could be a case of radical but necessary surgery to help the patient survive.
    That flaw is, unfortunately, quite real. Newspaper management does NOT know what the proper course of action is – at least not yet.

    As you suggest – but don't actually say – print newspapers MUST move to the web, which, among other effects, will remove the print subsidy to the web. Advertising revenue will likely never be sufficient to support the overall newsroom operation. And, on the web, competition is fierce and the central product – the news article – has already become a commodity – low in value and undifferentiated.

    It's just that bad, and there's no point in saying it more nicely.

    The way forward has to involve two ingredients: a different business model (probably one involving incremental charges), and an enhanced (but still news-centric) product (that has added value and competitive differentiation).

    I'm not a journalist, but an inventor and system designer. I've been studying the whole newspaper business for over eight years, with an eye to figuring out the business opportunities (for an outsider). I didn't post this as a comment to your Nieman Blog posting because (a) you already had 35 comments, and (b) nearly all of the commenters appear to be journalists and unlikely to understand/appreciate the true nature of their problem.

    Lastly, I would NOT agree that you should do anything to diminish the quality of your news product. The solution involves increasing its value to the point it justifies payment, not lowering it. (There's just the little matter of coming up with a practical way to pay for it. I have ideas on that, but that's for another time.)

    Terry

    PS: If you're interested, check out my comment on Carlos' New Media Notes blog (where you commented earlier). It deals with the challenge of trying to add value through categorization.

    • Thanks, Terry. I completely agree that the solution is to enhance the quality of your content to justify payment. The only issue is how to get there.

      • I think the first step is to realize that what your consumers want is not to just *know* what happened, but to understand what it means. I'm not talking about giving them your (that is, the newspaper's) opinion – people don't care much about that any more. Besides, there are lots and lots of opinions available.

        What people want, I think, is some context. Some way for them to put this new development (described in the news article) into perspective.

        That's where the contextual dimension I have been discussing with Carlos fits in. If you can discover the thread of meaning (I call it the underlying concept) in articles, you can then string them together into a meaningful whole. That 'glob' of concept-related articles can have all sorts of other things added – provided that they reflect the same concept.

        This would turn your archives into a treasure trove of value.

        Of course, you'll have to come up with a technical way to do this, because to do it by hand would be for all intents, impossible.

        What providing context would do is (a) add value to your ordinary current news articles (because they'd link into a bunch of helpful additional content), and (b) differentiation (because it would all be unique to your content – I'm assuming that you have or have access to some substantial archives).

  2. Mathew,

    You ended your recent posting (postulating that the newsroom cuts may help stimulate evolution) with:
    The only flaw in this argument — one I am willing to admit up front — is that this presumes that newspaper managers and executives actually know what the proper course of action is, and are only cutting those staff and duties they no longer require, while strengthening those areas of the paper that need more resources. The reality, of course, is that many newspapers are cutting in what are arguably the wrong places, or pushing forward with a completely unrealistic view of what their paper’s strengths and weaknesses are.

    I will admit that my theory requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief. And I’d like to note that I feel nothing but sympathy for the tens of thousands of journalists who have been and are continuing to be laid off. But in some cases — not all, I will admit, but some — those layoffs could be a case of radical but necessary surgery to help the patient survive.
    That flaw is, unfortunately, quite real. Newspaper management does NOT know what the proper course of action is – at least not yet.

    As you suggest – but don't actually say – print newspapers MUST move to the web, which, among other effects, will remove the print subsidy to the web. Advertising revenue will likely never be sufficient to support the overall newsroom operation. And, on the web, competition is fierce and the central product – the news article – has already become a commodity – low in value and undifferentiated.

    It's just that bad, and there's no point in saying it more nicely.

    The way forward has to involve two ingredients: a different business model (probably one involving incremental charges), and an enhanced (but still news-centric) product (that has added value and competitive differentiation).

    I'm not a journalist, but an inventor and system designer. I've been studying the whole newspaper business for over eight years, with an eye to figuring out the business opportunities (for an outsider). I didn't post this as a comment to your Nieman Blog posting because (a) you already had 35 comments, and (b) nearly all of the commenters appear to be journalists and unlikely to understand/appreciate the true nature of their problem.

    Lastly, I would NOT agree that you should do anything to diminish the quality of your news product. The solution involves increasing its value to the point it justifies payment, not lowering it. (There's just the little matter of coming up with a practical way to pay for it. I have ideas on that, but that's for another time.)

    Terry

    PS: If you're interested, check out my comment on Carlos' New Media Notes blog (where you commented earlier). It deals with the challenge of trying to add value through categorization.

  3. Thanks, Terry. I completely agree that the solution is to enhance the quality of your content to justify payment. The only issue is how to get there.

  4. I think the first step is to realize that what your consumers want is not to just *know* what happened, but to understand what it means. I'm not talking about giving them your (that is, the newspaper's) opinion – people don't care much about that any more. Besides, there are lots and lots of opinions available.

    What people want, I think, is some context. Some way for them to put this new development (described in the news article) into perspective.

    That's where the contextual dimension I have been discussing with Carlos fits in. If you can discover the thread of meaning (I call it the underlying concept) in articles, you can then string them together into a meaningful whole. That 'glob' of concept-related articles can have all sorts of other things added – provided that they reflect the same concept.

    This would turn your archives into a treasure trove of value.

    Of course, you'll have to come up with a technical way to do this, because to do it by hand would be for all intents, impossible.

    What providing context would do is (a) add value to your ordinary current news articles (because they'd link into a bunch of helpful additional content), and (b) differentiation (because it would all be unique to your content – I'm assuming that you have or have access to some substantial archives).

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