Someone told me once that it might be a bad idea as a communications professional to talk bad about the primary newspaper in the state. I apparently didn’t listen. It is not fair of me however to put them down constantly without a full explanation of why.
This has nothing to do with pay walls online as a lot of people want to highlight. It is all about the content, which in case you have not read a paper in a while, makes up about 90% of what is in a paper. I will explain why this is the problem, but first, a history lesson.
See not too long ago newspapers were the primary way we received information about both local issues and national. Papers would take all the information from the previous day, mostly in the form of newswires like the Associated Press, mix in a few local stories and send it to you. That worked great.
This model began to get a little shaky in the 90’s with the rise and adoption of 24 hour news stations on television. The primary problem with tv news however was that while great for breaking news, you had to wait to hear about topical news that interest you. Papers survived on allowing you to directly get the information you want. Once a day at least.
Internet presented the next big hit to newspapers. This transition was slow at first. The combination of slow support from the news media and limited adoption of broadband internet gave newspapers some time to adjust and get in front of the curve. Most big papers with a little extra resource did. They began leading the way in pushing out news. As broadband adoption rose in the late 2000’s so did the consumption of news online. It became easier to go online and have instant access to what is happening around the world. This was the pull phase, readers went and pulled information from the sources.
Then the 800 lbs. gorilla walked into the room. News sources started pushing information both actively and passively. I get breaking news on email, my phone and socially. Even more critical is that news sources have made it simple to share stories so now I am 75% more likely to read a story that a friend shares.
I said this was not about pay walls, and it is not. These news sources however are freely available and easily accessed. Most of the national news feeds can be found in some form or another online, which brings me back to content. Some local papers panicked when online adoption started to rise. They made a critical business decision to save resources by tapping into more feed stories and hiring fewer reporters for original content. The problem with local papers is not the reporters. I know plenty; most of them are overworked and are given less and less space to show their quality talent.
As local papers began to push out more articles from feeds they began to dig their own grave. I as a consumer am already receiving my national news both by push and pull methods. Most Americans are in the same boat. I start finding less and less information that I want to read in a news paper because it is a feed dump from the day before, most of which I have already read. The stories I care most about, which are the local ones I do not receive from my national news, have be shrunk into paragraphs or ran once a week because of fewer reporters.
See, local newspapers cannot compete with regurgitation of national news. They must look at focusing on local stories and impacts. The day of a catch all local paper is dead and the start of specialization has begun. Papers can no longer focus a once a daily or weekly paper on news items, rather they must move more toward editorials and impact stories.
A clear example of how this works is Arkansas Business. Full disclosure: I have a lot of respect for them; many of their employees have become friends. I advertise and pitch them stories because they do it right. They save (for the most part) breaking news updates for the web. Even then they try to add commentary about how it impacts us locally. They focus the print edition on telling stories about businesses locally and the impacts they are making in the community. This move to a story telling approach is what made them successful in a changing news climate.
Local/state papers in order to survive must shift to this story telling approach. Yes ADG has publications that do this like Sync, but they fail to embrace the concept with their core (and rapidly dwindling) audience. Give people stories they care about and they will start to care about you again. That is how to fix the local paper and people will even pay for it.
As always everything I say is up for debate. I appreciate feedback, just be willing to defend it.