How to Save Newspapers (But do we even care?)

The soon-to-debut StarTribune iPad app

Newspapers are struggling to figure out a new business model that gets all of us to pay for news, but that’s pretty tough in a day when we all have so many free choices. My own newspaper, the Minneapolis StarTribune, is one I still receive in paper form which, unfortunately, didn’t arrive this morning. As a consequence, for the first time I actually looked at their ad online about their new iPad app which will run me “only $3/week” if I opt to get my newspaper in this way.  

Here’s the thing: If I am going to get my news from our local paper, there is no more efficient means of consuming local news than one printed on paper. I can flip through the paper quickly, read what’s interesting to me, stop and look at ads that I find potentially useful, and when done toss it in my recycle bin. 

Yes, there are huge downsides to a paper beyond the obvious tree wasting, truck delivering, printing-press inefficient creating, news being stale, sorts of problems. But the biggest problem in a day of social media, and an acceleration in news delivery, is that I can’t tweet articles I find interesting or relevant from a non-digital news source, save important articles for later reading or reference to my Instapaper account, or email an article I think a colleague or client might find of interest.

Early every morning, after taking the dog out and grabbing breakfast, I read the print StarTribune. I then sit down with my coffee and iPad and skim the few hundred articles which have appeared in my blog feed reader. Next I go through several of the news apps I have (see the screenshot below) as time allows.

When we talk about news, the importance of having strong news organizations and whether or not they even care if newspapers survive, many of my younger tech colleagues argue that paying for news on paper means those who do get “old news” and “only Grandpas still get the news on paper.” The biggest argument is that “if the news is important enough…it will find ME.

That last statement is all about two things:

1) Being in an interconnected world where the important stuff bubbles up in to social networks, and is spread by friends and those whom we follow, means breaking news and stories we should read are foisted upon us by those whom we pay attention to and thus the news they spread.

2) News is now aggregated and we all have an ENORMOUS WEALTH OF NEWS available to us at our fingertips. Take a look at screenshot below from an iPad app called News360, one that aggregates news from just about every newspaper and source out there (including newswires). It’s an app I’ve come to rely upon to get multiple source perspectives on important stories.

News360 aggregates news feeds from an array of sources & categorizes them for easy discovery

I would argue that the explosion of news sources—and the instant availability of so many of them that are free—means that it is not only very difficult for a StarTribune (or any newspaper) to get people to pay for an online subscription…but do any of us even care anymore? 

My current iPad news apps, many of which are mostly pay-only, but many are free

In the screenshot above, many of these apps are free: CNN, News360, NPR, and so on. Many are pay like the New York Times, though my NYT Sunday paper subscription gets me access to the iPad and iPhone apps. BBC News is free. Zite and Flipboard bring in (mostly) blog and other RSS feeds which I can customize, but both are incredibly useful. 

Most of the major papers (e.g., Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post) have all gone paywall, but there is so much out there that is still free that even I, a guy who is a self-proclaimed news and information junkie, is increasingly reluctant to pay for subscriptions when I get so much for free.

THE SMART THING NEWSPAPERS ARE DOING
The smart thing newspapers are doing? These same major newspapers (as well as major magazines like BusinessWeek, WIRED and others I receive) are allowing print subscribers to also have access to their iPad app for no additional charge. I think this is a brilliant strategy to enable former print subscribers to slowly migrate toward an iPad or Android-based tablet as an eventual replacement for all print. Though I’m not certain they’ll be able to keep the presses running while that transition occurs, it’s nonetheless the only possible course of action in my view.

I fear the death or slow demise of journalism, and in particular investigative journalism. Without the critical mass and power major papers amassed when they were the primary outlet for news and commentary, it will become increasingly difficult for the press to be a check-and-balance to political power. That’s why I still want to pay for news, but am not sure I care if ALL of these news outlets survive.

ACQUISITIONS AND CONSOLIDATION
After all, in a market like Minneapolis/St. Paul do we need FOUR television station evening and 10pm news shows? Two newspapers/websites/tablet apps? (the StarTribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press). Tough questions, hard-to-come-by answers, but all I know is that I do care about news, deeply care about investigative journalism wielded by powerful, balanced news organizations, but don’t really care about who that is or where it might come from going forward.

Perhaps, like what happens in any industry in need of consolidation, the major news organizations will begin a series of mergers and acquisitions and we’ll end up with even more powerful entities. Or perhaps some of the emerging models of news gathering (e.g., The Uptake or NPR as public media) are the answer. 

What do you think?

3 Comments

  1. Nate Tomkins on August 6, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Good article…you nailed it. Newspapers are struggling and there are a really large number of them we can get for free. I know that I should care which one of them (or any?) survives, but I don’t. Some of them will. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to keep MY business running since my industry is being disrupted by the internet too. I think your M&A thing as the next thing is right on the money.



  2. Jim Bernard on August 8, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Steve–a very interesting article. You’ve obviously thought about this a great deal.

    I’ve made a career working for media companies–since the Internet revolution working on digital products. For many years I sold to big MSM companies: NYT, USAToday, CNNMoney and then I ran a big website for Dow Jones (MarketWatch.com) and now I run digital for the Star Tribune. Through the very difficult transition I have seen a number of shops do well and others suffer.

    The change is driven by something you hit on in your post–changes in reader behavior. Readers are experiencing unparalleled choice when it comes to news and information and the dimensions of that choice include ideas we wouldn’t have considered fifteen years ago: how fast can I get it? who told me about it? what device does it come on?

    One of my former bosses, Larry Kramer, discusses this at length in his book “C Scape: Navigating the Rapidly Changing Worlds of Media and Business.” Larry points out that the consumer is now in charge of choice and media companies ignore this at their peril. Your points about how people are reading now and what they expect must drive the discussion.

    But since joining the Star Tribune six months ago, I’ve come to a new respect for the local newspaper (or news company as I like to think of it) and what potential for growth and opportunity. Without making a pitch let me share a few things that you might find surprising:

    > Our audience is very large and growing both in print and online. I draw this back to the strength of our content producers–we have the largest content staff in Minnesota by a significant margin. Those folks are producing content that is really important to our audience–we do over 400,000 visits every day from people seeking our content. That is a lot of visits and matches many of the national outlets.

    > Our content, despite occasional wire stories from other places, is written by people who live here and is relevant to people who love this community. That is the vast majority of what we produce. The wire and national content is important to our local audience as well–some people (unlike you) use the Star Tribune as a single news source and they want the best from AP, LAT, NYT. I was surprised by this but there is ample evidence to indicate this is true.

    > We are very focused on engaging with our consumers. We are investing in our product, not cutting, and those investments are reader-driven. The digital investments of the last six months are just one area–we are doing similar things in reporting, advertising, circulation.

    Of course the question of who will find value in a digital subscription is yet to be answered. I believe consumers who love a product and feel like that product is developing with them are willing to renew or subscribe. You wouldn’t want to give up your print subscription as long as the paper was still part of your daily routine. I know there are consumers who use our digital products that feel the same way.

    Would love to continue the conversation and appreciate your thoughts and observations. This is one of the most interesting areas of media right now and I think everyone is learning.

    Jim Bernard
    SVP, Star Tribune Media Company



  3. Jim Bernard on August 8, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Oh, one more thing. There is no pricing set yet for the iPad (you mention a price in your post)–and there is a strong preference to provide access to our loyal print customers. Reward your best customers!



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