"Moody's is looking at downgrading the New York Times' credit rating. The Times' stock is doing badly. And other newspapers are in trouble, too -- the staff of the San Jose Mercury News has resorted to launching a "save our paper" website.
These certainly look like dark days for the newspaper industry generally. ABC's Michael Malone writes:
It was just a year ago that I predicted -- to considerable consternation and censure from the press -- that most major newspapers would be dead or dying by the end of this decade. Apparently, I was being conservative.
As I look around California, for example, I see the San Francisco Chronicle turning into the Daily Worker for baby boomers, the Los Angeles Times selecting stories based on political considerations, and now, the only real newspaper of any size left, the Mercury News, apparently orphaned. Meanwhile, McClatchy's strategy appears to be that of snatching up small-town papers, the last redoubt of daily print journalism. But that is just buying time before Yahoo and Google start putting local Little League box scores online.
Of course, Malone warns new media darlings, like MySpace, that they're likely to be next, victims of changing technology and fickle tastes on the part of a public that -- as it didn't in the halcyon days of the newspaper business -- has lots of choices.
Unlike, I suppose, a few bloggers I'm not cheering the demise of newspapers. I do think that the newspaper industry has dug its own grave through bias, disrespect for its audience, and simpleminded costcutting efforts that have seriously damaged its core competency (and killer app) -- actual gathering and reporting of truthful, accurate, hard news. But I don't think it's too late for imaginative newspapers to save themselves.
What would a new-era newspaper look like?
First, I think I'd skip the "paper" part. I've visited a lot of newspaper offices, and many of them proudly display the printing presses that produce their product, just as older newsmen often glory in the title of "ink-stained wretch." But their product isn't paper (in fact, for those of us who recycle, the paper is a drawback, not a plus, at least until it's time to pack things for a move). Their product is information. Paper is just an increasingly obsolete delivery platform. It's expensive, and on the way out. Get rid of it, or start a new "paper" without it.
Second, I'd put some of the money I saved by abandoning delivery trucks, printing presses, and the like into hiring reporters and writers, who have been the object of a lot of cost-cutting over the past couple of decades. And I'd expect a broader range of competency: My reporters would also all be photographers, equipped with digital cameras, and videographers, shooting clips of video that could be placed on the website along with their stories. This isn't asking too much, really. The world is full of people who can write and take pictures. I've heard editors at existing newspapers who doubt that their reporters could do this sort of thing, but if so, they need better reporters. I'd tell them to learn, or seek employment elsewhere. It's not that hard. This sort of approach might create union problems, which often forbid reporters from doing the job of photographers or vice versa; I'd tell the unions to go visit the Buggy Whip Museum and ponder the fate of work rules in that industry. (See examples of what I'm talking about in the video department here and -- from my local newspaper, complete with commercials -- here).
Third, I'd stop insulting readers. As Malone notes, many newspapers lean left; they're out of touch, as numerous surveys demonstrate, with the attitudes of most Americans. Often, like George Clooney (spokesman for another declining industry), they celebrate this disconnect. They shouldn't. People don't like being preached to, or manipulated, and they are increasingly unwilling to pay for that now that they have alternatives. So stop; give them the news, with as little bias as possible.
Fourth, I'd get readers involved. I'd incorporate readers and bloggers into the reporting, fact-checking, and revision of news stories. I'd be generous about handing out credit, too -- people will do a lot for a little bit of ego gratification. With digital cameras, cameraphones, etc., all over, there's usually somebody on the scene when something happens. I'd take advantage of that. I'd also take advantage of readers with special expertise in particular areas -- in fact, I'd build a roster of those people and use them as color commentators on stories in their areas. If union rules interfered, well, see above.
The bottom line is that there's plenty of market space for the news business, so long as it sticks to its core competencies of actually, you know, reporting news accurately and well. But the Daily Planet model of newspapers -- or, worse yet, the model shown in today's New York Times or San Francisco Chronicle, places where behavior that Perry White would never have tolerated is, sadly, routine -- is on its last legs. There's no reason that newspapers can't remain competitive -- no reason, at least, outside their own management. "