Newspapers or newsprint, which is in deeper doodoo?

The video that used to be above but was taken down by the user was essentially this piece from TJ Sullivan offering a really bad idea on how to save newspapers.

Sullivan says that from July 4 to July 10 this year, papers should stop offering free content online by blacking out their Web sites.

Let me include the disclaimer here that I work for the online component of a newspaper – its Web site, where they offer news free – before I tell you this will help further damage newspapers.

Before you read the rest of this post, be sure to catch up (if you haven't already) on my thoughts for a paid online newspaper I'd subscribe to. Go on, I'll wait.

Back? Good.

Now, why do I think this is such a bad idea (apart from the timing, which requires newspapers to make do with what they've got for another five months)? Let me count the ways.

Web sites do not replace the printed edition. Many people who are in-market who read a newspaper's Web site also subscribe to the printed edition. The majority of people who read newspapers' Web sites without subscribing to the newspaper are local ex-pats, now living out of town, for whom subscribing to the print edition would be both cost-prohibitive (who can swing $7 or $8 a day and $12 on Sunday to have the paper mailed to them?) and time-insensitive (it's not breaking news if I get the paper a week later – heck, you're not even reporting on the latest football game anymore).

Web sites increase news hole. By offering only the printed edition, do you (a) simply cut out a lot of what your reporters write, or (b) go ahead and print everything that they'd write for their blogs, because it's still content people want?

Newspaper Web sites have their own writers, too. Yes, newspapers provide the vast majority of content for their Web sites. But almost every (at least mid-size market) daily newspaper Web site in the country has other bloggers or beat writers. Will you spend that week printing their work, too?

Newspaper Web sites provide a space for people to interact with reporters and with each other. Are you suddenly going to expect your reporters to exchange lots of phone calls with readers? If 200 people send the same e-mail to your local college hoops beat writer, the writer typically can just post a response in a blog. You either risk cutting out that interactivity, or you risk losing your reporter. You also lose the ability for people to interact with each other – and a week may be just long enough for people to find a different forum and never come back.

Newspaper Web sites have different advertisers. Because they attract more of a national audience, affiliated Web sites attract different advertisers than the printed paper. If you lose the ads for a week, you lose some advertisers forever, and others you lose until you can bring traffic back up to what it was.

A Web site is a great marketing tool for the newspaper. Every business needs to be on the Web today. Every. Business. If you sell nothing but toothpicks, it will cost you next to nothing to have a permanent billboard with a potential audience of billions of people. If anyone was thinking about signing up a subscription, or thinking about advertising, that week, and can't find your contact info on a Web site? You're out of luck, sorry.

The answer is not shutting down the Web sites, it's charging for them, plain and simple. Sullivan's driving thesis is that America needs newspapers. Not true. America needs good reporters doing good journalism. When it comes down to it, the main differences right now between newspapers and their Web sites are:

  • People pay for newspapers.
  • Newspapers cost (a lot) more to distribute.
  • Web sites provide (near) infinite news hole, easier and less time consuming interaction, and the ability to include video, interactive graphics and sharper photographs.
  • Newspapers have a bigger environmental impact and get your hands dirty.
  • Newspapers travel better.

OK, great, so what we've found out is that newspapers travel better, and people are paying for them.

But people don't seem to care about the portability issue these days (maybe we appreciate that more in northern climes, where we're more likely to bring one down to the lake to read, rather than stay inside for the short outdoor season).

Sullivan, by the way, has set up an online petition, and almost exactly three days after he posted it, he has all of 103 signatures, including himself, "Close down these propaganda outlets," and "I. DisagreeButThereAreNoComments."

So what it comes down to is, we need to find a working model for paid newspaper Web sites. I'm totally OK with that, given the right model.

Journalism is not broken. The printed newspaper as a delivery vehicle might be, but there's a great call for journalism, particularly online. And if you tell people to pay for it or they won't get it, they'll pay for it.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that he'd rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers, he was really talking about journalism. He didn't have radio, television or the Internet as a delivery vehicle.

What are your thoughts?

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09/02/2009

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