This article in Vanity Fair (from May 09) was the first to really make me think about the future of newspapers. Up until then it was part and parcel of working at a newspaper that you would hear that “newspapers are doomed” – something being said way before I was even born. Back then it was the unions, now it’s the internet.
Since this article I’ve found Twitter to be a great source of debate and good links. I’ve discovered a whole internet meme dedicated to looking at the future of newspapers – who knew?!
The article, written by Mark Bowen (author of the staggering Killing Pablo), examines the effectiveness of Arthur Sulzberger, the latest in the family line of publishers of the New York Times. What is largely an exercise in character assassination and feint praise actually brings up some interesting points towards the end – looking at the impact of the internet on the industry and how the NYT has approached it.
What follows is a series of excerpts that cover a few important points – ones that will be need to be discussed further in future posts.
The impact of the internet on the newspaper industry
American journalism is in a period of terror. The invention of the Internet has caused a fundamental shift not just in the platform for information—screen as opposed to paper—but in the way people seek information. In evolutionary terms, it’s a sudden drastic change of climate. One age passes and a new one begins. Species that survive the transition are generally not the kings of the old era. The world they fit so perfectly is no more. They are big and slow, wedded to the old ways, ripe for extinction.
…in practice, there is no such thing as being platform agnostic. [It is not enough to say] Everything we put in the newspaper, we’ll put online. You actually have to choose which platform you work on first, which one comes first… If you really want to move to the Internet in a serious way, you need to change the culture of a news organization and decide that the Internet is the primary new thing. Platform agnostic means that all the online companies are going to zoom past you
Arthur’s idea is to continue producing The New York Times the way it has always been produced, and then to offer a digital edition of the product, with video, images, interactive graphics, blogs, and so on. That’s what nytimes.com does superbly. According to Nielsen, it attracts more than 20 million unique visitors a month. Imagine a newspaper that was picked up by 20 million readers every month! If only a tiny fraction of that number came back and became subscribers, circulation would explode. But those users are not “picking up” the newspaper; many of them are just picking up individual stories. Nearly half of those who access nytimes.com to read a story come in, as it were, through a side door… And in any case, they’re not spending a lot of time with the newspaper: the average amount, says Nielsen, is 35 minutes per month.
The Internet has disaggregated the news. It eliminates the middleman—that is, it eliminates editors…. [it] replaces editors with an algorithm
Much more is at work here than a change of platform.
The need for information would survive the advent of the digital era, but the package offered by The New York Times might not. So how do you protect the package? What was so great about The New York Times was not that we offered the best coverage in any particular field but that we were very good in so many. It was the totality of the newspaper that was a marvel, not any of its particulars. The Web threatened to break that up.
The belief that if the editorial content of the newspaper is good enough, then the people will buy it
Arthur’s argument, or his hope, is that the quality of the Times’s brand will prevail, that quality independent journalism is so obviously valuable that serious readers will continue to seek it out.
“This is ridiculous,” says a former business-side executive at the Times. “It flies in the face of logic and reason, this belief that if your news product is so good and so comprehensive the normal rules of business are suspended. Think about it. Think about the inanity of saying that you survived by putting in more news and cutting ads.”
Arthur’s grandfather did make one important change during [World War 2], but it was more of a shrewd business move than a principled stand for journalism. While the rival Herald Tribune sat on its swollen profits during the war, Sulzberger used his profits to print not more news but more newspapers, greatly expanding the Times’s reach. That strategy left the Times with a larger circulation than the Herald Tribune after the war. The Times was better positioned to survive. The lesson of the story is not that investing in news pays but that a clever business strategy adapts to a changing market.
It is a company run by journalists. The Sulzbergers are journalists at their core, not businessmen
Producing a newspaper is expensive
His brand remains the best in the business, but that hasn’t solved his revenue problems. Journalism costs. The revenue from Internet advertising is still only about a tenth of total revenue. Even if those millions of brief hits on nytimes.com continue to swell, the Times itself may be in bankruptcy court long before the Web site generates enough revenue to replace what Arthur has lost.
This is just the beginning – there is much more to come on this subject…