Newspapers need a disaster recovery plan

Lucas Grindley is worried: Newspapers are not ready to shift to the digital world.

Readers first started moving online in a trickle. It was like a small crack in a dam, leaking water. Then the crack got larger and people started moving online more quickly. What’s about to happen is that dam is so weak it’s going to break. Readership and revenues are going to move online in a rush.

Sadly, newspapers don’t have enough online infrastructure to catch the impending flood. If the dam breaks now, they will be largely passed by.

I’ve been talking for a couple of years about the coming tsunami, the tipping point, the day the walls come crashing down. I’m not predicting it, or saying when it will happen, or if it will ever happen, but I believe newspapers need to operate as if its inevitable and will occur soon. You can call the potential seismic shift of readership whatever you like, but there is a very high likelihood that one day a lot of people will wake up and say, “You know, ever since I got my broadband connection, and learned about RSS, and started to read blogs, and found craigslist, and got hooked into YouTube,” I don’t read my newspaper. I need to cancel that subscription today.”

What if 20 percent of your newspapers’ subscribers woke up to that same realization within the span of one or two months? That sounds like carnage to me. There is no amount of Fas-Fax spin that can explain that kind of drop to advertisers, especially if a mass of newspapers are reporting similar sudden drops.

It seems a lot of journalists try to comfort themselves with the thought: They need us. If we don’t cover government, who will? My question back is, then how do you explain the roughly 50 percent of the population that has discovered that they can get along just fine without you? It’s fine and dandy to pat yourself on the back for doing a good deed, but if that good deed ceases to be economically viable, then what? I wouldn’t count on people subscribing to newspapers because they feel some civic obligation to keep reporters on the City Hall beat.

Newspaper people have a vital and urgent need to figure out the digital revenue model. I doubt there is a single newspaper.com generating enough unleveraged revenue (meaning, totally independent of the print product) to support current news operations. That being the case at this late date, about 12 or so years after the first newspaper.com was established, is scary.

But we also haven’t nailed down the content model. For too long, and with too much surety, newspapers have been trying to reproduce the print edition online, instead of figuring out what is unique about the web and building a new content model. I still sense there are too many people — including people tasked with overseeing or producing content for online — who are still trying to reproduce the newspaper on the web. This is a blunder of potentially unrecoverable consequences.

By the time the tsunami hits, it’s going to be too late to get a clue. Now is the time to take a blogger to lunch, start steering the newsroom ship toward open waters, and figuring out what you really need to be doing online instead of what you’re doing now.

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One thought on “Newspapers need a disaster recovery plan

  1. Howard is dead on correct.

    This idea that newspapers are indispensable is another journalism fairy tale. It’s what we tell each other to make us feel good.

    “It’s all OK. Don’t worry about all that business stuff. Newspapers aren’t going anywhere.”

    The truth is newspapers could be eliminated. It is possible. This idea that newspapers will always be around, no matter how crappy a job we do, is simplistic and egotistic thinking.

    Newspapers are a public service. If at any point the public stops feeling served by them, newspapers (as we know them) will disappear.

    Sorry, there is no Easter Bunny, and there is no Fairy Godmother keeping newspapers at the ball.

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