There’s no magic technology coming to save newspapers

I have this fear that many in the newspaper journalism world cling to aomw notion that if we can just get past this rough spot of Web2.0 disruption, some technology that will come along and save newspapers as we’ve always known them.

I’ve been looking for somebody to actually come out and say it, and we’ve gotten close a few times recently between various pieces on newspapers needing an iPod moment (never mind that the iPod has done a pretty hearty job of desconstructing the music industry as we once knew it) and the recent release of the Kindle.

Here’s an article that comes as close as I’ve seen as saying, “there is technology that will save us.”

I’m going to deal with some of specifics in the article, but before I do, let me dispel two myths:

  • First, we don’t need technology to save us. There’s no reason we can’t succeed on the web; in fact, we’re doing far better on the web than many “the sky is falling” types in newsrooms give us credit for.
  • Second, technology won’t save us. If we can’t succeed on the web, we certainly won’t be able to succeed with the Kindle or e-ink, because each of those new technologies will bring their own challenges to the traditional way of doing things. Consumers will decide how to best use these devices, not publishers, or they won’t use them. That’s the rock-hard truth of digital technology — users are in charge, not publishers.

As for the article itself, which posits a rather cherry picture of how newspapers might be able to forgo messy print in favor of cheaper digital publishing.

Some problems:

  • Not all print readers will switch to digital, even if print goes away. Smaller audiences mean less from advertisers;
  • You’ll still need a web site (in a Kindle/e-paper world), you can’t count on net-savvy readers making the switch, so you’re still fragmented and disrupted by your own free content.
  • Much of online revenue now is leveraged against print buys, so when print goes away you lose that leverage and probably have to lower your prices for the single digital buy.
  • You can’t completely cut your circulation department, because you’ll still need staff to deal with e-paper subscribers and their issues and problems. In fact, your costs may go up as you need a more tech savvy call center.
  • The ad sales model proposed in the article is deceivingly complex. If current ad sales staff struggle now to sell very simple CPM-based banner ads — a far less complex sale than many print ads — how quickly can they adapt to highly targeted ads on devices clients aren’t really even likely to own in early stages?
  • The article is optimistic about half of the newspaper advertisers making the jump from print to digital, but mistakenly makes that assumption on current ad rates. But with smaller, more fragmented audiences, even with targeting, ad rates are likely to be much lower — classified rates, which probably will not be targetted and make the bulk of newspaper revenue, will be much, much lower, if not free.

Newspaper people need to stop chasing the rainbow of “technology is going to save us” and get busy trying to help us succeed online, because that is the more immediate challenge and opportunity before us.

We need to operate as if either we succeed online, or we die and not live in technological fantasy worlds.

2 thoughts on “There’s no magic technology coming to save newspapers

  1. ePaper gives a visual impression very close to print on paper. The contrast is as good as on printed paper leading to high readability. A newspaper on e-paper, i.e. the e-newspaper, could be delivered instantly without the need to print copies and distributed over distances to millions of subscribers. Further, it holds the possibilities of digital media such as constant updates, interactivity and video.

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