The newspaper business has a simple model: charge advertisers for getting access to readers whom you attract with relevant content and cheap prices. That’s been a great model for a few centuries now, and it is far from dying. No reason to depart from it–and, in fact, that’s precisely the model Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people ) is using to sweep a path of destruction through every advertising-supported media business there is (more on this momentarily). It’s the physical method that newspapers use to do this–what business types call the “form factor”–that’s the problem, the Achilles Heel of the industry’s current business model. Printing content and displaying ads on paper is going to go the way of the vinyl record and perhaps even the CD.
Here’s why. Traditional media sell advertisers a pig in a poke. Advertisers don’t know whether a reader actually looks at their ad much less buys anything as a result. And they can’t really target their ads beyond picking a type of newspaper and section to focus on in the hopes of reaching a particular demographic group.
Google and its ilk only charge advertisers when a viewer clicks on the very page containing their ad and perhaps, in the future, only when the viewer actually buys something. Plus, they can use all that information collected from past searches and other information they’ve gleaned about viewers to target ads with an increasing degree of accuracy. The technology is a different as a Schwinn one-speed bike is from a Porsche 911 turbo.
So, if anyone is going to save the newspaper industry, it isn’t any of the moguls who think they can breathe life into a dying technology. It is more likely to be someone like Steve Jobs who can devise a really appealing way to make newspapers available digitally.
Some of this I agree with, actually. If newspapers were interested in selling online intelligently they could come up with all kinds of ways to charge based on who clicks on a particular story or video or blog. However, most newspapers aren’t interested in selling online ads intelligently. Most newspapers do something like this:
1. Establish web site, usually mediocre but sometimes outright bad
2. Assign one ad rep to sell online part-time
3. Wait for profit
4. When profit does not come, fire ad rep
5. Wait for profit
6. When profit still does not come, blame the newsroom for not providing enough content, or the right kind of content, or something, and reshuffle editors
7. Wait for profit
So yeah, thinking about what you’re selling as part of how you’re selling it and working the actual problem instead of what you think is the problem is a major part of addressing the overall advertising decline.
What I disagree with, strenuously, is the idea that we need some kind of digital reader people can roll up and take with them on the train and that THAT is the answer. Look, I live in a commuter town. And I can tell you, increasingly, people commute from suburb to suburb, and to do so, they have to drive. And when you’re driving, if you’re a total moron you’ll read a paper or a digital thing like a paper in the car, but most often you’ll listen to the radio and if you really want news you’ll get it there or online when you get to work. As commute times lengthen, the amount of time you’ve got for breakfast shrinks and there’s not any more time to read the paper than there would be to read some roll-up computer screen thing.
Technology didn’t doom the newsaper business (it’s not even doomed, for fuck’s sake) and it’s not going to save it. Waiting for Steve Jobs to swoop in with a thingy you can use will not fix the underlying problem that newspaper companies are demanding too much money and too little thought from their employees, blaming the lowest-paid people for the mistakes of the highest-paid, and generally acting like it’s all the Intewebs’ fault when, bitch, please.
You can make up all the Jetsons-type fantasies you want about the shiny toys that are going to make our lives better. Until the underlying stupidity changes, nothing’s going to get better.