Don’t Fix It

Because it isn’t broken, you morons:

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.


5 thoughts on “Don’t Fix It

  1. Judith Fucking Miller doomed the newspaper business…no one trusts them any more.

  2. I was around when the newspapers tried to figure out their cash cow, classified. And they didn’t or couldn’t because they didn’t want to lose the revenue from the print versions. I saw it happening because I worked with a couple of companies that tried to beat them to the punch, interestingly they didn’t really succeed either. It was up to Craig of Craig’s list that figured it out. And because he didn’t have the same “Must make buckets of money first” attitude, they succeeded.
    There are times when focusing on the money ends up messing up the functionality.
    I also know that Google’s focus on the function of their product’s search results is very very important to them. Most people get the ad stuff, but people still come for the good “organic” results.
    And the same is true for the papers. People come for good “organic” stories and news. If it was all designed to sell stuff then why bother reading them? The desire to make all information a method to sell stuff to people really kind of disgusts me.
    There is a reason that the framers put the press in the constitution, and it is not just because they wanted to ensure that they had a solid business model due to their protected status. A population that doesn’t understand what their leaders are doing can’t make decisions on what to do with these leaders. That also puts a responsibility on the press.
    Family owned or privately held newspapers led to some quirky decisions and other strangenesses, but publicly-held newspapers and media groups forces the values of the paper to always be bottom line profits and the corporation doesn’t care how they get there, just as long as the money rolls in. And the people need and deserve more from our media/press.

  3. I think the Toronto Star and Haaretz’s English online editions both do a good job with ads. Their ads are usually targeted to the content (for instance, you see a lot of ads for Toronto businesses and nightlife in the Toronto Star’s online edition, and a lot of ads for stuff like JDate, Eldon car rental, and Birthright Israel programmes on Haaretz’s site). That’s the way to do it, I think. It seems to work, because I know I click through the ads on those sites more often than I click through the ads on most other sites.

  4. The problem is that advertisers don’t seem to realise how much more valuable an online ad can be, in terms of both more precise targeting and metrics. So they pay much less per reader/viewer than they do for print or broadcast ads. That’s why you see papers doing what you describe. I’d be enormously frustrated if I were in that position – seeing readers bleed away to other websites and other papers with a better online presence, but unable to beef up the website because the ad revenue wasn’t there. One ad person told me that agencies pay 10 times as much for a print reader as for an online reader, yet basic logic tells you you get far more value out of an online reader. It’s insane and until the advertising industry wakes up to that fact I don’t see the situation changing. My great fear is that in the period of time before it does all the papers are going to get in a race to the bottom in the hope of propping up sales. You’re already seeing it in the UK press, which has on the whole been far more receptive to the internet than the US media. Even so every paper now has giveaways all the time – free DVDs on the weekend, wallcharts, etc – just to keep up the numbers. It takes resources away from journalism and you can see the results inside the paper.

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