Screw the core
Q: How can we save newspapers?
A: We cannot. Nor should we want to. Newspapers are a form, as impermanent as any form. The important part of what they delivered is the information, and there are many ways to deliver that information.
Q: But what about the watchdog function newspapers serve?
A: Again, you’re confusing form, both in terms of a printed product and the organization of a business, with the outcome. There is more than one way to serve as a watchdog, and people in the public are both willing and able to. And because I say we can’t save newspapers does not mean we can’t save news organizations.
Q: OK, why didn’t you say that before?
A: That wasn’t the question you asked.
Q: Fine. How can we save news organizations?
A: Three words. Screw the core. Newspapers and local television stations have been trying to work out plans that achieve two mutually exclusive ends: increasing revenue for their core products while expanding the reach and profitability for their online and other ventures. As is the case with any plan aimed at achieving two mutually exclusive goals, these ventures have failed. The answer would then seem to be choosing one of these goals and pursuing it.
Q: Then why not say “screw online” and focus on the core?
A: Some organizations have done exactly that. In the short-term, it will likely hold profits at a reasonable level, but as a long-term strategy, it’s doomed to failure. In March, CNN reported that more adults get their news online than from any other source. That number has increased, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to reverse. So by giving up online ventures–which almost no news organization is really suggesting–would be a possible short-term success and almost certain long-term death sentence.
Q: So why can’t news organizations do both?
A: They can, but they can’t do both well, nor can they do it profitably.
Q: So you’re suggesting shuttering print and broadcast operations?
Q: But you said “screw the core.”
A: That’s not a question. And yes, I did. But I didn’t say “Burn down the core.” What I meant was that news organizations can no longer afford to keep re-investing in an outdated medium. Stop re-investing in the core and start investing in other ventures. Consider the newspaper. There are dozens of pages, filled with ads, stories and briefs. Each of those has to be produced, placed on a page by a person, printed and then delivered to a final destination. It’s an inefficient process, but one with an end result some people (though fewer and fewer) like very much. When it was inefficient but still the best way to disseminate information, it made sense to invest as much as possible in it. Now that it is no longer the best way, it no longer makes sense to invest in it. Some people still use it. While it can still be profitable, it should still exist. But the act of printing the paper is not the important part, nor should it be overly romanticized. The gathering and dissemination of information is the vital function, something that can (and should) be done in multiple ways.
Q: But what about profits? The core is what’s sustaining many news organizations.
A: If you can call it that. By choosing a “both/and” strategy instead of an “either/or” strategy, news organizations are far behind the curve when it comes to creating effective structures to report and digitally distribute the news. Yes, the core business is still making money, but by creating radically smaller organizations designed to aggressively report and distribute content based around one topic, news organizations could both keep costs low and pursue new ventures with lower start up costs. This isn’t a new idea. In fact, sometimes it seems that the only people who haven’t figured out how to adapt news gathering and distribution to the digital age are the people working at news organizations.