For years, the digital zealots have been telling us that newspapers were dead in the water, a relic of the past destined to go the way of the dinosaurs and eight-track tapes.
But, in what must be a big disappointment for the digi-geeks, newspapers have stubbornly clung to life. Sure, some have closed, but the U.S. is still home to roughly 1,300 of them. And while these are tough times for the newspaper business, barring some wildly unforeseen calamity (say, an asteroid hitting the earth), it’s difficult to imagine all of them suddenly disappearing tomorrow. Or next year. Or even five years from now.
And papers haven’t survived simply because of a certain nostalgia some of us have for ink on newsprint. They’re around because they still make money. Indeed, they still get much more revenue from printed ads than they do from digital ones. (As I’ve written before, digital advertising has proven to be a major disappointment. One study found that for every $7 papers lost in print ad revenue, they gained a paltry $1 in digital.)
I will never understand why it’s so hard for us to grasp that there are certain contexts in which print can work. Why give up on something that works just because something else works, too? People pick up your paper and they read it, they buy ads in it, they like it. Why kill it in favor of something that other people also like and do? Why cut off your customers unnecessarily? Printing is not THAT expensive. (Distribution can be, if it’s badly managed, which it usually is.) Why not serve your customers?
Figuring out which audiences are best served by digital, and which are best served by print, and creating content that either works in both platforms or works in each platform should not be the impossible dream we’ve made it out to be. It’s not like the market research teams don’t exist. It’s not like we don’t already pour thousands of dollars down the maws of consultants who tell you to change the masthead font, like anybody gives a shit about that. Let’s take a few of those thousands and figure out where everybody is and then get our stuff to them there.
Just don’t suck. Don’t suck at getting the news to people. Don’t whine about how things used to be, don’t long for the days when Kids Today read the paper (they never will unless you stop insulting them), don’t be the bitter hipster talking about how print is more pure and film is the only true medium and people are too superficial to understand and here’s another package about Paula Deen. Just fucking go out there and do your job and don’t suck.
What most of the industry’s problems come down to right now is that news organizations suck. Newspaper web sites suck, the paper sucks, and if one half of that equation happens to not suck they will MAKE it suck in favor of the other half. And when customers have the temerity to point out that such things do, in fact, suck, news execs respond with marketing-speak about changing tastes forcing them to transition you to a suckier experience against your will, for which you should be grateful, hippie.
They people who figure this out will be the ones left standing in the end, while everybody else flails around cluelessly and runs their bloated, heaving sites into the ground and then laments how people don’t read anymore.