At last night’s tech talk, there was some discussion about the impact that social networks are having on, of all things, newspapers. The main thrust of the (rather brief) conversation had to do with how people are relying more on their friends and peers for news and information, and less on mainstream media. This inspired me to dust off a draft blog post I’ve been tinkering with for a while and actually post it. So here ya go …
It’s not hard to find news about newspapers in distress these days. What’s interesting is the changing tenor of the discussion. For example, Clay Shirky‘s recent article about the newspaper industry, is garnering a lot of attention, and has a distinctly “The Emperor Has No Clothes” feel to it:
Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.
So far the downturn appears to have hit hardest at larger papers in communities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco, in which the major publications have either shut down, filed for chapter 11, or are “in distress”. Smaller publications like our own Bend Bulletin appear to be a bit more immune to the Internet smackdown. But one can’t help but wonder what the buzz is like over in the Bulletin’s offices these days because, frankly, Shirky seems to have it about right.
My wife and I are both avid readers of the Bulletin. We pay our $11/month and read the paper over breakfast each morning. But more and more I find myself taking an imaginary pair of scissors to it, where I clip out all the stuff that I’ve already read online or where I know there are comparable online alternatives.
It’s a sobering exercise, that. In fact, having just taken a couple minutes to do this for real with a weekday copy of the Bulletin I find that, by weight, 75% of the paper is gone; what started as 8 ounces of newsprint is reduced to a rather swiss-cheesy 2 ounces. Anything to do with world or national news is gone, as is a good fraction of the state-level stuff – all available as part of any decent web portals default content. All the advertising and classifieds go away (bend.craigslist.com, anyone?). And a surprising amount of sections like, “Home”, “Community” and “Local” also get clipped. The comics go away all together (and good riddance to drivel like Mary Worth and Family Circus, say I!) as do the more notable obituary items.
One thing that is quickly apparent with this exercise is that the role of a newspaper has changed dramatically. In the days of our parents, papers were vital in connecting people to the affairs of the rest of the world. But there are literally hundreds of online sources for world and national news now, that are searchable and social in ways that newsprint never will be. Instead, the emphasis is now on the local, topical value a paper adds. I.e. “How well does your paper connect you to your own community, rather than to the outside world?”
But even that role is threatened by the emergence of various online alternatives. For example, here in Central Oregon, we have BendBlogs.com, an aggregation of local blogs. Is it a word-for-word replacement for the journalism of the Bulletin’s reporters? No, but it’s no less interesting. Local bloggers are not professional journalists, but what they lack in training and grammar is often more than made up for in enthusiasm and insight.
For local events and activities, many pubs, theaters, and venues host their own calendars, but there’s also hackbend.com which aggregates much of this content as part of covering the Bend “scene”. Hackbend.com is not a complete replacement for the activities and events section of the paper, but if you look at how open and social it is (Jon Abernathy, the site’s owner, will publish any announcements people submit, and the site has both RSS and Twitter feeds, making it easy to add to your favorite web portal or mobile device) it’s not hard to imagine this becoming a must-have resource for Bend residents.
Finally, if you’re feeling spunky and want to drink from the firehouse of local news and gossip, there’s always a Twitter search like this one [tweets from people within 50 miles of Bend]. Again, not an apples-to-apples replacement for anything the paper offers, but that’s because it’s from a content source unlike anything that’s ever existed. As a news stream, it is frenetic and chaotic in a way that traditionalists scoff at. But look beyond that, scan the grist and chaff of our local residents’ daily lives, and you’ll discover a community zeitgeist that is fascinating.
Thus, our local newspaper has stiff competition from the online world. Nor is this unique to Bend; Local papers everywhere are treading water, staying afloat, but in danger of going under as their relevance wanes as the waves of online innovation erode their audience and more importantly their revenue. This situation isn’t helped by the coming generation of network-enabled devices. Connect a Kindle or the recently rumored Apple netbook to the online content I mention above and the whole ink on dead tree thing, starts to look a bit dilapidated.
So just what does the future hold for local papers? For the Bulletin? ‘Hard to say. But if they are to survive, it’s clear their online presence will be a vital part of that survival. Which brings us to the Bulletin’s online site. The online edition of the Bulletin is polished and professional looking, but click around a bit and you’ll soon realize that there’s something missing. For example, a quick look at the 12 “Feature” articles that appeared on a day in March shows a total of ~650 page views. Is that good or bad for a potential local audience of ~120,000 people? That depends, I suppose, but given that those page views are probably only generating $10-$20 in total ad revenue (assuming an RPM of $20), I doubt the Bulletin execs are satisfied.
But what is most disconcerting, one might even say, “eerie”, to a modern web user, is the number of comments on those articles: a giant goose egg. Zero comments. None. It feels like a sci-fi movie where you walk out your front door and notice all your neighbors have disappeared. There is an astonishing lack of community in what should be a thriving community forum.
The primary reason for this is the Bulletin’s subscription model. Much of the content is inaccessible unless you have an online subscription with them ($8/month). Their rational for charging for access is simple (from the Bulletin’s FAQ):
News and information is valuable and expensive to produce. Publishing local news to our Web site involves considerable additional investment in staff, licensing, software and hardware.
But this reasoning is critically flawed. The “valuable and expensive” part of this equation is the overhead the Bulletin has in producing news and information - the staff journalists, printing presses, and delivery network they employ – not the news and information itself. As we’ve seen, there are free alternatives to nearly everything the Bulletin is trying to sell.
But where the Bulletin is really stumbling is in failing to realize that the main value online content has is not as something to read, but as something to share or discuss. Many of their readers only turn to the online edition after they’ve read the paper over breakfast and coffee, and found something noteworthy. These readers, as modern web users, expect to be able to discuss content with other people, and they expect to be able to link to it in an email, or on Twitter, or in a blog post. But these activities don’t make any sense with content that’s behind a subscription wall. “Why bother sending a link to a non-subscriber? Why bother commenting when there aren’t enough readers to generate a discussion?”
The Bulletin’s subscription model has been tried numerous times by other papers, nearly all of whom have since realized there is more value in having content that is freely available. That “more value” usually takes the form of advertising revenue that comes from having a larger audience, but would this work for the Bulletin? It’s hard to say. Based on the meager data at hand, and taking a complete swag at the numbers, they would probably have to increase their traffic by 50-100x to generate significant advertising revenue. That’s a daunting task, considering how small the local audience for this content is.
What is abundantly clear is that much of the Bulletin’s current site is syndicated content from Reuters, Associated Press, ESPN, Weather Central, Inc, etc.; content that is readily available from 100′s of other sources. If the Bulletin is to survive, it will have to establish itself as an online resource for our community, and appeal to the emerging generation of web-savvy readers. Doing this will not be easy, in spite of how prominent a role the print version of the paper plays in our community. There is already compelling competition in this space, being produced by people who “get it”, and don’t need to make money off their readers.
I imagine that’s a pretty sobering thought for the Bend Bulletin journalists and staff and the people in charge of their payroll.