Are newspapers becoming synonymous to buggy whips?

February 20, 2009 at 6:17 pm Leave a comment

Sally Saville Hodge

reading the news...I stopped my subscription to the Chicago Tribune a year ago. After about 20 years or more of faithful home delivery. And despite twinges of guilt over the loyalty thing. I did, after all, work there for a few years back in the ‘80s.

I don’t really miss it. (With a rueful apology to all my old buds there who haven’t yet been laid off.) See, I don’t have time to do a leisurely daily read in my garden with a cup of coffee or tea. I can get my news fix on the Web, weaving my scans into my workday. And it gives me access to a wealth of voices, not just the Trib’s.

My hands stay a lot cleaner, too.

Even though my decision was one of a million or more nails that have been pounded in the daily newspaper business’ coffin, I still fret over what can be done to save it, and, ultimately, what’s a proud and (mainly) honorable calling. So it was with no small degree of excitement that I read the cover headline on Time magazine a few weeks ago: “How to Save Your Newspaper.”

Great, I thought. Smarter people than I have come up with a solution. Must read!

Alas. I’m sure the author is smarter than I, but the proposed solution? To charge for content. Just a small amount – micro-payments – following the same approach that Apple took in building up its iTunes business. The problem is that it’s too late. That horse has left the gate.

I do wish that he was right in his argument. That people are willing to pay for well-written content. But the reality is that he overestimates how discerning most people are. Convenience trumps quality in most instances. I did a decidedly non-scientific poll of the 20-somethings I work with along with many of the 30-somethings I know, and only one of the 15 preferred the hard copy newspaper. None was willing to pay for online content. “Why, when I can go to a different site and get the same news for free?” asked one.

They did, however, cite exceptions, notably of one of the strongest brands in the business: the Wall Street Journal. Its quality was deemed worth paying for.

And quality is a critical component of brand equity that continues to erode in the newspaper industry each time another round of editorial layoffs is announced. Last week, the Tribune laid off another round of reporters, including Pulitzer Prize winner Don Terry and two of my favorites, Susan Chandler in business and Jeff Lyons with the Sunday magazine.

With each round of cuts – at the Tribune, and at scores of other newspapers across the nation, you see more wire copy being used to fill the dwindling news hole, and it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate one news source from any other. We no longer have much of a reason to choose one over another – much less pay for whatever delivery mode.

The newspaper business is fast becoming an anachronism. I’m beginning to think the new model will be found less in micro-payments for content and more in solutions like that devised by the Christian Science Monitor. Survivors will be those that find ways to embrace their online selves – profitably – as the “paper” part becomes synonymous to buggy whips. Hopefully, they can do it before the voice that makes them distinctive is totally lost.

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Entry filed under: Diabloguer.

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