Freeing Journalists From Newsprint's Straitjacket

from the low-overhead dept

One of the interesting things about the end of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition, which Mike noted on Monday, is how much more flexibility the PI will have to adjust to changing economic conditions now that it's an online-only publication. I don't think it's generally appreciated how constraining the newspaper format is. Readers expect a daily paper to be a certain size every day, and to arrive on their doorstep at a certain time every morning. Meeting those requirements involves a ton of infrastructure and personnel: typesetters, printing presses, delivery trucks, paper carriers, and so forth. To meet these infrastructure requirements, a paper has to have a minimum circulation, which in turn requires covering a wide geographical area. All of which means that as a daily paper's circulation falls below a certain threshold, it can lead to a death spiral where cost-cutting leads to lower quality, which leads to circulation declines and more cost-cutting. Of course, some papers manage to survive with much smaller circulations than the PI, but these tend to be either weekly papers (which tend to have a very different business model) or papers serving smaller towns where they have a de facto monopoly on local news.

These economic constraints, in turn, greatly constrain what journalists can do. They have a strict deadline every evening, and there are strict limits on the word count they can publish. Because newspapers have to target a large, general audience with limited space, reporters are often discouraged from covering niche topics where they have the greatest interest or expertise. Moreover, because many newspaper readers rely on the paper as their primary source of news, people expect their newspaper to cover a broad spectrum of topics: national and international news, movie reviews, a business section, a comics page, a sports page, and so forth. Which means that reporters frequently get dispatched to cover topics they don't understand very well and that don't especially interest them. The content they produce on these assignments is certainly valuable, but it's probably not as valuable as the content they'd produce if they were given more freedom to pursue the subjects they were most passionate about.

The web is very different. Servers and bandwidth are practically free compared with printing presses and delivery trucks, so news organizations of virtually any size—from a lone blogger to hundreds of people—can thrive if they can attract an audience. And thanks to aggregation technologies such as RSS and Google News, readers don't expect or even want every news organization to cover every topic. Here at Techdirt, we don't try to cover sports, the weather, foreign affairs, or lots of other topics because we know there are other outlets that can cover those topics better than we could. Instead, we focus on the topics we know the most about—technology and business—and cover them in a way that (we hope) can't be found anywhere else. In the news business, as in any other industry, greater specialization tends to lead to higher quality and productivity.

Moving online will give the PI vastly more flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions and focus on those areas where they can create the most value. The PI says they'll have about 20 people producing content for the new web-based outlet. That's a lot fewer than the print paper employed, but it's enough to produce a lot of valuable content. And now that they're freed of the costs and constraints of newsprint, and the expectation to cover every topic under the sun, it'll be a lot easier to experiment and find a sustainable business model.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    anon, Mar 20th, 2009 @ 12:28am

    tech dirt on weather

    now that would be one hilarious post. "United Kingdom sues entire North Pacific Coast over Weather Copyright Infringement. -fog is intellectual property of the crown!"

    Thank goodness for the small things.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Tyler!, Mar 20th, 2009 @ 3:18am

    The end of print is the beginning of long yarns

    It won't be long now before young adults start turning into older parents and the ol' reminiscing engine starts churning.

    "Why, I remember my first job as a paperboy!" some parent somewhere will eventually say to their child, who will have just proudly confessed they've landed a first job of their own.

    "A what?" the kid will reply with uncomprehending and cynicism.

    "Well, back in Ought-Eight we used to ride around on our bikes with huge bags over our shoulders loaded down with rolled-up newspapers, which we would take door-to-door at five in the morning."

    The kid thinks for a second on that bizarre image and then responds, "News-PAPER? Why didn't they just use RSS feeds and email to deliver the news for free?"

    And even a child will be able to quickly grasp the unsustainable nature of the currently dying print model

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Dude, Mar 20th, 2009 @ 8:30am

    bonus feature

    Another big advantage to moving online: The company can track what their audience is reading the most (and hopefully commenting on the most). This seems obvious, but is left out of the "dying newspaper" debates. What if your target audience never reads the food critic? Why waste resources on it? traditional papers cant do this.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Weird Harold, Mar 20th, 2009 @ 8:53am

    Re: The end of print is the beginning of long yarns

    "because son, nobody wants to pay for it, so there are no more reporters. Just bloggers, and they don't tend to check facts very well".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    icon
    GeneralEmergency (profile), Mar 20th, 2009 @ 9:10am

    The only real benefit of the P.I. going paperless...

    ..is that there will be a lot fewer leftist Parakeets in the coming years in the Seattle area.

    These papers are dying for TWO reasons. The first is, yes, the Internet, but the second reason has been weakening them for a long time and that is blatant leftist editorialization in the news copy. Left and Liberal simply does not sell. Nobody wants to read, much less pay for, that constant stream of snide, snarky, "I know better than you" effluent that drips off the fingers of these miserable, self-loathing root-weevils.

    This is why liberal talk radio simply does not exist.

    So, with Leftist newsprint and talk radio on the ropes, why is the left on TV doing so well? The answer is deceptively simple. Subscription TV via cable or sat. Less than 20% of Americans get their TV programming over the air any more. Unfortunately, it is the bundling pricing structure of these providers that is propping up the left on TV. If a-la-carte pricing was available today by law for subscription television, networks like MSNBC and CNN would likely fold within 18 months.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Weird Harold, Mar 21st, 2009 @ 8:42am

    Plenty of journalists are getting freed not only from the newspaper straight jacket, but also from their paychecks. It isn't exactly clear how having less and less paid reporters in the world is good for the news.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 22nd, 2009 @ 12:03am

    I've been spending the past 2 days doing research for a term paper on the failing newspaper industry and I have been growing more and more disheartened to find so few who truly understand what the local citizens in "Anytown, U.S.A." will be losing if their local papers fold.

    This is the first site of at least 10 on this subject that actually had a modicum of intelligent discussion on the subject.

    Yes, there are many employed reporters who could use a more thorough lesson in ethics, and I was horribly embarrassed by the editorial staffs and journalists that practically genuflected to Obama throughout the election, but not all newspaper staffs are out to get Joe Schmo.

    I don't believe the newsPAPER industry should continue if the business model is no longer viable, but the problem remains that online ads just can't pay for good investigative journalism, news bureaus, accurate fact checking and broad coverage of local news.

    Most of America's in-depth investigative reporting is done by newspaper journalists. They need to feed their families. Do we really want to lose these good reporters to the PR industry?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    C. Harrison, Mar 22nd, 2009 @ 12:04am

    I've been spending the past 2 days doing research for a term paper on the failing newspaper industry and I have been growing more and more disheartened to find so few who truly understand what the local citizens in "Anytown, U.S.A." will be losing if their local papers fold.

    This is the first site of at least 10 on this subject that actually had a modicum of intelligent discussion on the subject.

    Yes, there are many employed reporters who could use a more thorough lesson in ethics, and I was horribly embarrassed by the editorial staffs and journalists that practically genuflected to Obama throughout the election, but not all newspaper staffs are out to get Joe Schmo.

    I don't believe the newsPAPER industry should continue if the business model is no longer viable, but the problem remains that online ads just can't pay for good investigative journalism, news bureaus, accurate fact checking and broad coverage of local news.

    Most of America's in-depth investigative reporting is done by newspaper journalists. They need to feed their families. Do we really want to lose these good reporters to the PR industry?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Ashley S., Apr 21st, 2009 @ 10:13am

    Internet strategies...

    I think that kind of industry can be alive for some time more; they should get involved in the internet marketing and so on during that time. Here there are some tips and strategies for that. http://www.ilikesem.com/blog/internet-marketing-strategies/

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This