Michael Kinsley, of Slate, wrote an interesting article this week on the future of newspapers.
The core theme was that the newspapers have some strong assets, in particular, their brand, their ability to create massive amounts of content, and their reputation (Jason Blair aside) as a “trusted source”. At the same time, their manufacturing process, delivery methods and end-user usability have hardly evolved since the early days of the printing press.
From a customer experience standpoint, newspapers are clearly diminishing in value. When I talk to people to find out whether they still read a print version, I find it’s highly dependent upon their commute. I still have the New York Times delivered each morning, but that’s largely because I have a commute that’s over an hour, on a combination of railroad and subway. Those with a short commute, or who drive, don’t seem to find a printed newspaper that valuable. In essence, the printed newspaper has become like an iPod – it’s a means of killing time, as opposed to a primary source of information.
Kinsley’s take is that “The trouble even an established customer will take to obtain a newspaper continues to shrink, as well. Once, I would drive across town if necessary. Today, I open the front door and if the paper isn't within about 10 feet I retreat to my computer and read it online. Only six months ago, that figure was 20 feet. Extrapolating, they will have to bring it to me in bed by the end of the year and read it to me out loud by the second quarter of 2007.”
Kinsley’s conclusion is that the traditional way of manufacturing and delivering newspapers cannot last. The bright side, for Kinsley, is that if newspapers can eliminate their printed versions, they will be more profitable (assuming they can retain their advertising base), as the cost to print and deliver a paper is higher than the price. Of course, only those newspapers willing to aggressively “eat their young” will be able to recreate themselves in a more useful way, while remaining profitable.
I hope that some of these trusted sources can make that leap. The quality of investigative journalism that you get from the Washington Post, the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal is not something you'll find on a blog or in a regurgitated press release positioned as news. The cheap way out will be for papers to simply syndicate more of their content, as many smaller papers already do today. But, those who try that approach will find that by adding no value, they'll no longer be relevant. Instead, I hope that the major papers will invest more, not less, in those areas where they create value, and that local papers take a similar approach to creating content relevant to their community. I expect that in the next few years we will see more newspapers fail and fewer trees getting cut down.