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March 26, 2007

Newspapers, Offline Media Are Not Dead

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It was sunny and gorgeous in Southern California this weekend so I did something out of character for an obsessed blogger. I stepped away from the computer and ventured outside for virtually the entire weekend. I know; I’m still getting over it myself. It seems while I was out hiking in Malibu and playing in pick-up soccer games, the cyclic debate over whether newspapers are a dying art came back around.

Typically, I stay away from conversations that have already been beat to death by people much (much) smarter than me, but this time it’s different. When people proclaim the death of newspapers, the geek in me takes it personally.

If you think newspapers are dying, they’re not.

Tim O’Reilly started the conversation on Friday passing on the rumor that the San Francisco Chronicle may be in danger of shutting down. The story was that Phil Bronstein, the Chronicle’s editor-in-chief, had told his staff that the news business "is broken, and no one knows how to fix it". Once the blogosphere got hold of the story, the results were predictable:

  • Thomas Hawk proclaimed the newspaper business dead.
  • Matthew Ingram fought that newspapers need to advance or die.
  • Dave Winer suggested reforming journalism schools to keep newspapers alive.
  • And quite predictably, Robert Scoble once again told the doom of anything is that is not online video or smothered in geek.

And because timing is everything, the whole thing got even grimmer this morning after the news InfoWorld would be cutting off its print arm as of April. Yes, it seems that newspapers are about to become a thing of the past and fade away into obscurity, much like that LA Gear keychain that used to adorn your brand new sneakers back in the ’80s. Only not.

Before you succumb to the hype and let your Chicken Little tendencies get the best of you, take a deep breath. Eat a brownie. Watch a sunset. All in all, just chill out.

Is it surprising that newspaper subscription numbers are falling? No, it’s really not. The costs of putting out a tangible copy of news you can read via your computer monitor is expensive. More and more people are adopting broadband and are using their computer for everything. We can expect to see these numbers drop while newspapers figure out how to best adapt in a new era. But newspapers aren’t going to die. Not in five years, not in twenty, and probably not while I’m still alive.

First, not everyone is as adept at using the Internet as those reading this blog entry on this here Internet Marketing Web site. There are plenty of towns and cities across the globe where connections are scarce and people actually do prefer the dead tree format. As the very smart folks at 901am noted, not everyone in the world is living in California. [Huzzah for that, housing prices are bad enough.--Susan] - For serious.

Newspaper will ultimately evolve, but I really don’t think they’ll change so much that their roots are hard to distinguish. They won’t go the USA Today route; they’ll keep what readers love and adopt what they’ll come to expect. And this will happen once the faces of those running them change. Dave Winer spoke about the need for reforming journalism schools. I think that’s a key point to all this and I think it’s already occurring.

I graduated from journalism school back in 2004. In order to complete my degree, I took classes in online journalism, "audio journalism" (the layman’s podcasting), site design and other Web-friendly topics, and that was three years ago. (God, I feel old.) The transition is already in progress. Future journalists are already being taught to adapt.

My participation in JSONS, Emerson’s student-run online news service, is what sparked my interest in the online format and is ultimately responsible for landing me at Bruce Clay. Today, JSONS has grown to offer weekly podcasts and is toying with opening up a separate audio blog. The students contributing to this service now are the same people who will be writing for the Boston Globe and New York Times tomorrow. They’re getting their training right now.

Something else worth noting is Stowe Boyd’s argument that papers like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal will survive, while the average local newspaper will die. I completely disagree.

If there is one area where papers still trump online media, it is in local news. Folks read local newspapers not for the front page stories, stories they could arguably get anywhere, but because of the local coverage. They read them to hear what’s going on in their community, how the local high school’s football team did last week, which players are making names for themselves, what’s going on in their school district, what’s going on in local politics, etc. That information is still important and its information that’s almost impossible to find on the Web. Have you ever tried to navigate the Web site of a local newspaper?

Robert Scoble declares that newspapers are dead in the water because his son would never subscribe to one. He’s probably right about that; Patrick Scoble won’t subscribe to a newspaper when he grows up. But Patrick Scoble is not representative of most of the population. Patrick is the son of an ubergeek (and I say that with complete respect). He’ll lean towards things Web and online video-related. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone. If you didn’t grow up with parents reading a newspaper, you probably won’t read one when you’re older. The newspaper gene is right up there with the one for alcoholism and the tendency to watch football on Sundays.

Newspapers aren’t dying, they’re changing. As an Internet marketer you need to decide if targeting the print world is still beneficial to your marketing campaign. Offline media has its benefits. Not every company or product will benefit from targeting newspapers, just like not every business will feel the same surge from social media. Decide what complements your business model and design your marketing campaign accordingly.

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3 responses to “Newspapers, Offline Media Are Not Dead”

  1. Anna writes:

    No kidding… I haven’t been handed a piece of “virtual swag” at a conference/expo, have you? hehe… You can’t send a URL via ESP as you pass a booth… they have to give you a tangible piece of something to get you to remember them.

    As for newspapers, I have the hardest time finding *any* info about a local fire (for example) online or other local news, but it will be in the local paper. Sometimes not even the county paper, but the city/town paper. So those media outlets are needed by many. This coming from someone who is actually allergic to newspaper print… so for what it’s worth. :)

  2. Doug writes:

    What’s to stop local paper’s from going online like their larger brethren?
    http://www.townonline.com/
    This site takes content from smaller ‘town’ newspapers and rolls them into one megasite. Each local paper has a subdirectory – preserving their local feel and identity.

  3. Chris writes:

    I agree that the ‘big dogs’ of the newspaper industry will be hurt severely, but they’ll survive. And I also agree that many many small towns in America still rely on their ‘local’ stories for news.

    And even the majority of those are actually printed, online local newspapers are going to grow also.

    I recently started an online local newspaper that covers our little town. (www.buscovoice.com)

    Our readership is fantastic and the feedback is overwhelming. I have no journalism background, but as a tech savvy person, I really feel this (online media) is where it will all go. Both nationally and locally.



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