The Times They Are A-Changing

Kevin Nguyen contends that newspapers don’t need a radical change to survive online; they just have to adapt their old success to a new age.

No media has wrestled with the internet more than newspapers. Declining print readership, paired with struggles to turn profits on ad revenue, threaten their livelihood.

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has been a vocal critic of newspapers’ internet presence. His general argument is that newspapers fail because they treat their web editions the same as their print copies. Though vague, I grant that this is mostly true. Where I disagree with Karp is with his solutions to the problem.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project

Not the solution

In Karp’s piece “What Newspapers Still Don’t Understand About the Web,” he explains that newspaper websites should aggregate stories, like Google News:

Here’s an idea for newspaper website homepages — just a search box and a list of blogs. Seriously. Instead of putting all the web-native content and publishing in the blog ghetto, like does, why not make that the WHOLE site?

He argues that it’s more efficient to find the news he wants on Google. I agree, but he misunderstands the fundamental difference between Google News and a media like The New York Times or The Washington Post. Google’s best product has always been its unrivaled search capability. A newspaper makes money from its own content.

How is supposed to turn a profit by doing exactly what Google already does better? This is misguided suggestion at best.

I do agree with Karp’s approval of blogs, though. In them, we see exclusive web content that takes advantage of the nimble internet–allowing writers to publish instantly and express smaller ideas, encouraging user comments and discussion, and spurring incoming traffic from other blogs.

It’s hardly the invisible “blog ghetto” that Karp envisions. The majority of visitors come to newspaper websites for hard news stories that they can’t find elsewhere. The blogs compel visitors to stay and (hopefully) click on some sponsors.

I’m not entirely convinced Karp believes what he’s saying, though. The sensational headlines he writes always garner a handful of user comments (and I suppose this article could be playing into that same reaction). His most recent article on the subject is titled “What The Newspaper Industry Could Learn About Do Or Die Innovation From General Motors.”

Aside from the ridiculous suggestion that anyone should follow GM’s current business practices, Karp inaccurately parallels the news medias’ struggle with the competition between car manufacturers.

The newspaper business is being crippled by competition, which, like Toyota in the case of GM, is doing a better job of delivering what the market wants and needs. GM realized that to survive they couldn’t just catch up to the competition — they had to surpass it — and they had to do so by delivering the [sic] holy grail for consumers.

To beat your opponent, you have to be better. Brilliant. And what is this “Holy Grail for consumers?”

How can newspaper companies surpass the competition? How can they be better than Google? Those are the kind of questions that newspapers should be asking — and then pursuing bold answers.

Newspapers need to stop trying to save the old business or searching amorphously for new business models and instead figure out what needs are going unmet in the market for news — and then be first in the market to deliver breakthrough solutions.

Ignoring the tired comparison between Google and newspapers, this is still a case of a lot of words that say nothing of value. At least in print, articles are limited by the size of the paper. On the web, as shown by people like Scott Karp, the absence of word-count restrictions encourages empty ideas.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project

Better ideas

The problem was never the original business model. Newspapers don’t rely on paid subscriptions for the print edition; they rely on ad money. As they draw readers to their free websites, advertising will still drive revenue. So really, the key is to increase online readership by giving people a reason to read.

Originally, The Times charged for access to certain content on their site, but after realizing that advertising outweighed subscription profits, they opened up almost all of their content. (For a good breakdown of revenue figures, see this article on Tech.Blorge.) is on the right track, introducing a lot of new, dynamic web content. Along with the excellent blogs, there’s audio and video content, interactive graphs, and Times Machine (which lets you view every issue all the way back to their first, though this is for home subscribers only). They’re trying every trick in the Web 2.0 playbook. For example, Times People, their new social-networking feature, is interesting though arguably frivolous. But these are desperate times.

While print ad revenue declines, internet advertising increases anywhere from 15 to 30% annually. Newspapers must continue to prove that their online ad space is worth the money.

As long as we’ve got content, we’ve got something nobody else has,‘ said [Marshall] Morton, of Media General. The industry’s challenge, he said, is to keep expanding that audience, ‘proving to the advertiser that we, in fact, are the right link so that he can have his conversation with the customer through us.’

Hopefully, our favorite papers don’t kick the bucket before then.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.