Thursday, June 19, 2008

Newspapers: I can has intellectualist-elitism?

God, I don't know what I'd do for blogging material without Current. Today there's a story about how Lee Abrams, former XM satellite radio programmer, now chief innovation officer for the Tribune Company, is gracing us with 15 ideas for growing newspapers. Current focuses on how Abrams sort-of disses NPR, and everything that needs to be said either already is or will be said by others.

I'd rather pause for a minute and opine that the fact that Abrams is working for the Tribune, has the job title "chief INNOVATION officer", and is spouting incredibly ignorant tripe like these 15 ideas? That's the reason why newspapers are, supposedly, going down in flames as a business model.

First off, you can't bring in ONE guy and expect him or her to change a stodgy corporate culture into something fresh, hip and innovative. It's gotta be people like that from the corner office to the guy cleaning the bathrooms. Well, okay, maybe not the bathroom guy...but it can't just be one person off in a corner scribbling on post-it notes.

Second, I doubt I'm alone in wondering why Abrams seems hellbent to turn his newspaper into a website. I don't mean a companion site, I mean he's almost talking as if everyone's walking around with a laptop, reading a PDF of his newspaper. Lemme try explaining this from another angle: who reads newspapers? Is it young twentysomethings? Generally speaking, no. And why should they? They grew up on the web. It has all the benefits of a print newspaper, many benefits over a print newspaper, and none of the detriments. Hell, to them, reading a newspaper on a 2x3 inch cellphone display is "easier" than reading it on a piece of paper....the point being that nothing you do in regards to the content of your print newspaper...short of restricting the content only to print (a proven loser of an idea) is going to get kids to read it. They are just instinctively more comfortable on the web.

So who's reading the newspaper? Probably older people. People who grew up reading newspapers. And if you structure your newspaper so that it appeals to young people, there's a damn good chance (near-certainty, even) that you'll annoy the hell of out the older generations.
They are instinctively less comfortable on the web.

This isn't to say Abrams' ideas are all stinkers. He's certainly "getting it" when it comes to how you can't ever make assumptions about your audience. And I applaud him for evangelizing an idea long-overdue: stop scattering news articles across a wide range of pages. It's based on a very old-world idea of forcing reader's eyes to sweep across as many pages as possible, thus seeing as many ads as possible. It's a horrible idea in the web age, when everyone...even old fogies...are more used to getting straight to the point and don't have time to screw around searching through lots of content they don't want.

I also suspect that Abrams may be using these ideas to back the paper into another long-overdue concept: better integration between a newspaper and its website. Very few papers really do a good job synchronizing the content between the two so that they are more than a "For more info, go to" sort of thing. The layout is different, the feel is different, and rarely does the actual content on one really complement the other. Usually the content for the paper is just barfed back up on the website, too...with a little eye candy tossed in for fun. I don't usually see the reverse angle applied - why not use the web to drive print stories? There's no rule that says it can't be done effectively; collect info and opinions on the web, use it for an expose in the print.

Oyeah, pet peeve: why is it that so many newspaper websites seem to have no problem with giant ads covering up their content? Would they accept that in their print version? Of course not! So why should readers have to accept it on the website? It's annoying, it's hard (as a user) to get rid of, and it invariably uses Flash which is a resource hog (especially on older computers) and is very, very insecure (vulnerable to hacking).

1 comment:

Tom Wilson said...

I think print is dying because of the "free" culture that's building up around pretty much every media.

Likewise, I can get the daily news for free from any number of sources. On-line articles are free to go in to more depth on a topic, and I'm not limited to what my newspaper editor sees as important.

Do you know how many times someone has shown me the paper, saying "check this out!", and I reply - "Yeah, I saw that last week on xxx blog or xxx tech site."

The downside to all this "freeness" is that it costs us more than ever to stay in touch. When I was a kid, we had 1 telephone line and a TV - not even cable TV, just a 30' high antenna. That cost us like $10 a month. Now, my family has 3 cell phones, digital cable TV, a land line phone line, a fax line, and Internet service. The bill for all that? Around $200 a month.

(OMG... I'm listening to the radio right now, and I'm hearing my first HD radio ad in months. Too bad it's so hard to actually FIND a receiver.)

The media competes with everything else in our lives, and things like the newspaper, TV, and movies have to come last. So in tough economic times, it only makes sense that the first thing to go is the local newspaper subscription.

If newspapers want to survive as an entity, they've got to find a way to supply the consumer something that he can't get for free.

And yeah, it doesn't help when the guys running the businesses are so out of touch. :)