To recap Sunday's New York Times story about metro newspaper companies that are now cutting back from a daily publishing schedule, some companies are doing it because it no longer adds up for them to put out a daily paper, and some people at other companies are saying that's a bad idea, because it breaks a daily reading habit and leads to cheap, lousy journalism.
Here's the important takeaway, and it's something I've been writing about for years and will keep touting until it happens: There is no bright future for journalism on the cheap. The answer to our current glut of junk info cannot be more junk info, and the reason that more companies should be moving toward a sustainable model of less frequent, higher-quality print publication paired with efficient digital-first journalism is because (for some of them) it's the only practical option available today that includes the words "quality" and "sustainable."
To recap the important points via links...
- Print advertising revenues continue to decline
- Print circulation continues to decline
- Web advertising revenues don't make up the difference
- Neither do paywalls
- Fixed costs don't go down
- To keep profits up, news companies keep laying off journalists
- The result is what I called "the Zombie model" in 2009 - familiar brands staffed by skeleton crews, cranking out just enough rickety junk to keep words and pictures around the remaining ads.
So when NYT reporter Christine Haughney quotes newspaper veterans who say things like this...
“They want them to produce more blog posts a day and not even worry about putting things together in a more thoughtful package,” Mr. (Brian) Thevenot (a St. Louis Post-Dispatch business editor who left The Times-Picayune in 2009) said. “The Times-Picayune has a sterling tradition of enterprising journalism. That’s why people are so mad. That tradition is being thrown under the bus.”
.. I alternate between varying flavors of despair and annoyance.
Despair, because short-sighted policies like those described by Thevenot are the industry standard, not the exception, regardless of the technology. The digitial tools at our disposal today could have been used to increase quality, build new relationships and increase credibility. Instead, media companies routinely view new technologies as nothing more than new ways to cut staff costs. That's because they're clear-cutting their last forest, not planting new trees for the future. Instead of growing a business that can support quality journalism, they're scaling back quality to match their expected earnings.
Annoyance, because it absolutely doesn't have to be this way.
So if you're a news executive (or some 22nd century digital archaeologist, searching for answers as to why and how journalism failed in America), and you stumble across this post, let me offer you a simple set of instructions for creating a sustainable system for quality journalism given the tools available today (while I work on trying to build new ones).
- If you've cut back your staff to the point where there's not enough quality content to fill a newspaper seven days a week, stop publishing bad daily papers. Bad newspapers with junk content don't "build a daily reading habit," they kill your brand by pissing off your customers.
- If you're not going to be a print metro daily any more, cancel your wire service subscriptions. You no longer need them.
- Unbundle the idea of a metro paper. How many communities of interest and geography comprise your coverage area (in Charleston, for instance, I believe the answer is five or six)? Figure out a way to use your existing printing, distribution and editing resources to support that many non-daily papers, and then assign your existing reporting staff accordingly. Hire stringers if necessary.
- Use digital journalism -- whether delivered via website or mobile or app, it doesn't matter -- to keep your users current with the routine churn of the news cycle. There's a river of information out there to report, sort and pass along, but remember that you're creating distinct content based on the strengths and weaknesses of different media. If you think you can just repurpose web content as print content, then please stop talking. The lowest-common-denominator has to go.
- Don't let your less-than-daily newspaper become like the wasteland you've created in your daily editions. If you only publish once or twice a week in print, and if print is where you can give people context and understanding, then by God make it count. Forget breaking routine news in print. That's what digital is for. Use print and the power of design to present journalism that means something again.
- Let the web supplement that.
- Should you charge for your print editions or distribute them TMC-style? That's up to you. But whether you do or you don't, understand that your web and your print editions will not be hastily assembled mirror images of each other.
- If you can't produce the quality that this model demands with a staff that can be sustained by your new revenues, then get creative. Become a news service for all things local. Hire out your reporters and web producers to local TV stations, other websites, local sports franchises. Sell basic coverage to your competition. Use your excess daily print capacity to print and distribute The New York Times or some other national paper. Work out a deal with that national paper to include a page or two of local news and advertising in the locally printed edition. Or hell -- try creating some niche coverage sites that people will actually pay to read online. You've got assets. Get paid for them.
- If you have to cut staff, hire it back -- as freelancers. No, that's not great for anyone, but it's better than relying on a staff of overworked employees that you're burning out and using up. Study how your local alt-weekly works, and learn a few lessons.
- And finally, you know that brown-nosing guy at the conference table who loves to say there's nothing wrong with shorting quality and upping people's workload until they collapse into bitter hackery? He's the devil, and he's also a lousy businessman. So when you finally get this thing working and he tells you that, Hey, you can be MORE profitable by cutting overhead until the quality standard slips, again, just fire him. On the spot. In public.
I never said it would be easy, because quality is never easy. But quality is the only way through what lies ahead.