Save journalism, not newspapers

The former editor of Vanity Affair and The New Yorker magazines conveys magnificently how we should appreciate the “what” of news journalism’s value chain (content is king) separately from the “how” of reporting, editing and delivery. Thank you to BoSacks for sharing this article.

“But I think now the debate has to shift on from ‘how do we save newspapers’ to ‘how do we save journalism’. ‘I think it’s really imperative that papers like The New York Times – which is in a parlous condition – the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe, which is in tremendous peril and is probably going to go, are saved in terms of what they do, without necessarily worrying about the delivery system. It’s more important to preserve journalism than it is to preserve newspapers, frankly.”

I also thoroughly agree with her assessment of newspapers becoming a luxury item.

“I think there will be some newspapers in 10 years’ time, but with a much more elite and focused audience, charging them more for the papers, going hand-in-hand with a web operation until the generational transition is complete and everyone”

Brown touches on innovation and new models. IMHO to reach a new dominant design for news journalism, I predict that non-media types will have major roles at media companies, tearing apart organizational structures and processes that lifers can’t (like at Ford).

“I think at this point it’s all about innovative approaches. I think we’re involved in a very, very scary transition, where nothing seems to be working financially, but I’m absolutely confident that a new model will emerge.”


Our issue with issues

Deep in the psyche of media/publishing veterans is an assumption that is not discussed often: Our issue with issues. There’s a lot of talk about the failing advertising-reliant business model for magazines and newspapers, and about the transition away from print to all sorts of digital distribution.

With print, we’re literally bound to packaging, distributing and marketing content in editions. You don’t see single articles – or hourly updates – from Sports Illustrated or the Kansas City Star on the newsstand, unlike their Web counterparts.

Issues have a special place in readers’ minds. Think about the annual fashion, swimsuit and “list” issues. Edit and sales teams alike love this because it helps to organize their work, at least making it seem easier.

This concept of issues is also paramount to the circulation-auditing business and to advertising. Each audit statement is based on the publication’s “analyzed” issue for that time period. Also, the adds and drops for each issue are presented, hanging out to dry the circulator’s dirty laundry.

On the ad front, marketers buy display space in issues and get discounts on frequency. In magazines we even talk about shelf life of an ad because people save their copies and supposedly look at old issues. (This one even I have trouble with since it’s hard enough sometimes to get through current issues.)

Issues are nice because they provide a tidy way for editors to package the day’s, week’s or month’s stories. Looking ahead, though, I won’t care so much about the March issue of blah-blah magazine. If new packaging, distribution and marketing paradigms are more exciting, convenient and efficient, I’ll forget all about my issues. This is one reason I see replica, digital issues of magazines and newspapers as a transition point.

I still want an organized package of what to read that does replicate the value currently handled by editors – especially the goal of showing me what to read/understand so I’m a well-rounded member of society. But our future with (non-print) newspapers and magazines will be sans issue.

If the Kindle or similar has any chance of lasting into the news-reading future, it will have to accommodate a Web-like fluid, self-updating presentation of articles and data, plus more (and more) social interaction.

Instead of reading articles from a specified time period, we could have our cake and eat it, too. Online, articles are just sitting in a database, tagged and waiting to be sorted/filtered to your heart’s content. Show me not only the editor’s top articles for right now, but also (1) by date so I can catch up from previous days; (2) by reader popularity; and (3) by my social networks’ popularity.

News[paper] journalism: Value chain

The ad-supported model is allegedly broken for newspapers and magazines, and many blame Craigslist for siphoning off classified ads. That’s one factor, but another place to look is edit, the news itself. Now the traitor calls from my fellow j-school alumni start pouring in.

Simply put, consumers want news of various types: national, local, sports, business, entertainment, etc. Newspapers around the country have taken it upon themselves to create a lot of that content. Newswires like AP and Reuters offer a lot of content that any publisher can buy, but “big-city” papers produce plenty of national content that readers consider commodities. How much value do readers in Sacramento, Kansas City or Tallahassee get from national news by their local reporters vs. what the “national” papers do on bigger scales?

I think a few big news companies (ie, newspapers, magazines) should become major players in content syndication, selling national and international news to smaller news companies that should focus on their core competency: local and regional news. The paper in St. Louis, for example, would only produce content that no one could do better – about St. Louis – while buying content from its choice(s) of suppliers, such as New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, plus Sports Illustrated, ESPN, BusinessWeek … you get the idea.

The St. Louis paper could buy from one supplier exclusively or pick and choose every day. It could have branded sections, like national news from Washington Post, business from Dow Jones, sports from ESPN. If going with one supplier, or one per news category, the local paper could become a local edition of that national paper. Or maybe Tribune Company even renames its smaller papers Chicago Tribune, using local writers only for local/regional news.

One of the overall goals is to keep citizens engaged in news, analysis and debate, ideally with the best possible content. If a newspaper can’t meet that commitment for anything but what’s happening in town, it needs to figure out how to do the rest before the audience is gone.

To quell my j-school friends … I still firmly believe in the value of delivering an edited, organized presentation of what’s important for people to know, including topics they didn’t know they should know. Searching your favorite news sites for what interests you doesn’t develop well-read, well-rounded citizens of a democracy. We need dedicated, trained editors putting together newspapers, magazines, etc, whether read in print or online.