Who Needs Ink? A panel discussion on the Future of Newspapers

Commonwealth Club event at San Jose City Hall: Who Needs Ink?

Who’s here?

  • Ex-Mercury News tech writer Dan Gillmor, currently of various citizen journalism initiatives
  • Jerry Ceppos, ex-Knight Ridder news executive (and Merc alum)
  • Peter Appert, a Goldman Sachs analyst
  • Joan Walsh, Salon‘s editor-in-chief
  • Jim Bettinger, communications prof from Stanford (and Merc alum) is moderating
  • And about 60 audience members…(It is a rainy night…)

[ooOOh: There is free wifi at City Hall. Go figure… By the way, the SaveTheMerc folks were at the registration table.]

The Future of Newspapers is pretty timely at the moment, with the future of the Mercury News (way) up in the air, along with the 11 other KR orphans.

Oh, and I don’t have my camera with me tonight, but for nostalgia’s sake, you can check out this shot of Dan Gillmor with a couple SJSU faculty members from last year. (I am not a photojournalist.) If anyone took pictures tonight, I’ll happily link to them. (Steve Sloan’s got a shot here)

Okay, enough preamble…questions are being asked by Bettinger.

[Ed. note: If it’s not in quotes, it’s paraphrased.]

Do investors think the business model is broken?

  • Appert: There will still be a paper on your doorstep tomorrow and the next week. Revenue growth is sliding, and if you’re public, there’s pressure from the shareholders to get more value out of the company.
  • Gillmor: “The facts are the facts. The business model is eroding…” Newspapers under attack by “nimble, hungry” competitors. (Who is he talking about? Blogs? Alt weeklies? TV? I dunno.)
  • Ceppos: “We clearly have a great new way to distribute the news, but there still is a print culture in our newsrooms.” Take half your staff, and point them at the Internet. For real. Not “Hey, file a story online before you write your important story for the paper.” The culture of the newsroom has to change. Free dailies will do well, but the Web is the thing. It’s the content that matters, not the channel.

Can the Web revenue grow fast enough?

  • Ceppos: Probably not, but let’s figure out how to make money off it.
  • Appert: Internet ad revenues for news orgs are growing, but the print revenue is shrinking faster. Web ad rates are a fraction of print rates. (Ed. note: Charge More.)
  • Ceppos: Ditching the stock tables from print is a bright idea, and it has been for years. Why did it take so long? (What I want to know: What else can print cut out this year?)
  • Walsh: Yesterday’s wire stories? Ditch ’em. Everyone read those online last night. The Rosenstiel report: more outlets doesn’t mean more news. What took big orgs like the NY Times so long to integrate print and Web? “We have to think of ways to make newspapers essential again, and they might not be newspapers.

Are newspapers dinosaurs? Slow, lumbering and tiny-brained?

  • Ceppos: Yes. The NYT’s e-mail the bylined writer schtick – once a day the writer gets a set of e-mail. Plus, the Times Select op-ed writers’ e-mail addys are still hidden behind the paywall.
  • Gillmor: Newspapers are in the manufacturing biz, not the news biz. “That’s what really runs the business.” How do you get out of that while maintaining enough good journalism? “Clearly, killing the stock tables is a very nice first step.” Appert: “I love the stock tables.” Gillmor: Understands the NYT’s fear of gobs and gobs of reader e-mail, but they should still get it. News people have to understand that the audience is an active participant now. Cue We The Media Mantra: “My readers know more than I do.”
  • Appert: “The freight is paid by the advertiser,” so how do we make the newspaper more appealing to the advertiser so we can make money to make great news?
  • Gillmor: Journalism isn’t getting the high-margin ads (the classifieds). Walsh: Advertising can’t really drive the discussion. Success is going to come with feeding your audience what the want – be nimble, be creative. Appert: “Tragically, I think you’re wrong.” Editorial has to be aware of what the advertisers want.

How has Salon been profitable?

  • Walsh: “We cut costs to the bone and it wasn’t pretty.” Then, they focused on what they do best. At one point, they talked about subscribing to the AP wire and rewriting stories “the Salon way.” We’ve got a subscriber model – if you subscribe, you don’t see the ads. That’s not actually working out that well. (The advertisers want the opinion leaders’ eyes, eh?) Comments are on, and there’s no flood of crap to edit for libel/death threats, but it’s going alright. The WaPo comments flap, and the WaPo plagiarist blogger kerfuffle.
  • Gillmor: The Web works great because you can experiment and cherry-pick the winning ideas.

Verification before publication, or publication and self-correction?

  • Gillmor: Most blogs are conversation, not journalism, so don’t sweat it. Factual errors can be fixed quickly. Citizen Journalism doesn’t mean that everyone’s a journalist; it means that some people “from time to time, commit an act of journalism.” Dan’s new rules for journalism include transparency.
  • Ceppos: The best newspaper sites are getting the news out accurately.

The Google/Yahoo News question – aggregation vs. creation?

  • Ceppos: Pretty neat, but I don’t need to read the same story 10 times. People want news, they need news, they’ll get news. Will there be any money to pay for news? Yeah, but put that big bunch of staff on the online edition.
  • Walsh: Newspapers are overstaffed. Cue Chronicle joke. This is a Merc room… Great journalism has not been rewarded – KR’s Iraq repoprting was best.

Audience questions:

Has the print industry outlived the business model?

  • Gillmor: The transition from here to there (print to online) doesn’t “happen by magic.” Newsrooms are full of real humans with real jobs. It’s not easy to change. “I don’t know that we need newspapers, I know we need what newspapers do.”
  • Appert: Family-owned papers have much more freedom to make changes and let profits slide a bit without shareholders to answer to.
  • Is the long form feature story dead?

  • Walsh: No worries – when a story’s great, we put up 5000 words, and we can tell if people are reading the whole thing. “We don’t have the limits of advertisers supporting pages.” Gillmor: “I print them out.”
  • Ceppos: Magazines will be the place for long form writing.
  • Gillmor: Magazines are great niche publications. “In those cases, the advertising is at least as interesting as the editorial content.”
  • Appert: What about the Wednesday grocery ads in newspapers?
  • Ceppos: “Why shouldn’t every newspaper be famous for something? When you try to cover everything, you cover nothing very well.”

How many audience members read a daily newspaper?

  • The demand for instant news, without a physical product…
  • Gillmor: Hopefully there’s some sort of way to package news to create context in communities.
  • Walsh: The NOLA Times Picayune rocked after Katrina. Went straight to the Web, then published readers’ stories. “The readers became experts.”
  • Appert: Demographics are a challenge. Newspapers have a depth of local coverage you can’t get from other media.

What should J-Schools be doing to prepare students for the future?

  • Ceppos: We should focus less on convergence and the specifics of how to build web pages — we should be teaching them how to cover the news and file stories in different ways. Focus on the basics, but know how to file for all media.
  • Walsh: At NY event she was at, news execs were falling over each other to make content deals with J-Schools. (Ed. note: PAY US. Please do not refer to students as “cheap labor.” It’s not cheap for us, mmkay?)

Tom Paine + Ben Franklin = blogs? Death of newspapers is okay, right?

  • Gillmor: “Blog” is just a “foxy word” “proxy word” [CORRECTED 4/1/06 – Thanks Dan!] for “doing things ourselves.” Ninety-five percent of everything (not just blogs – everything) is crap. How do we surface the really good stuff? We need to get past the Daily Me and to the Daily We. “The Tom Paines of tomorrow are probably going to be doing it with video” and other forms that are native to the next generation of mediamakers.

What direction should news orgs be “sprinting” to in search of the new business model?

  • Appert: It’s not that bad yet, but it’s getting worse, so sprint.

Why print out Web stories to read them, fellas?

  • Ceppos: The lack of portability.
  • Gillmor: Screens aren’t pleasant enough to read yet for long periods of time. Good stuff coming soon, and more portable too. (Ed. note: think e-paper.)
  • Ceppos: You want to pass a section of the paper back and forth over the breakfast table with your spouse. (Ed. note: Bathroom reading did pop up as another reason.)

Local weeklies, dailies?

  • Gillmor: Consolidation has made weeklies crappier. But they should be better, and have a chance, because a lot of these areas are too small for Craig’s List to get into.
  • Ceppos: Still not convinces that people care about their hyperlocal news.
  • Appert: Hyperlocal papers have the best penetration rates. Chorus: They’re free.
  • Gillmor: Metro dailies could let communities talk to each other about their local issues.

Vision/Mission statement for a new print paper?

  • Ceppos: “Be famous for something.”
  • Walsh: Great reporting and writing, and “a place for the reader at the table.”

Last question: What’s the most important journalistic value that needs to be preserved, and how?

  • Walsh: Accuracy. “It’s not very sexy…” but you can’t separate the current news problems from the accuracy and credibility problems.
  • Gillmor: “Telling the truth,” a slight twist on accuracy/objectivity. Help readers sort out the important issues instead of just reporting he said/she said. Laments for the KR Washington bureau that stood up re: Iraq.
  • Ceppos: “A new kind of fairness that goes further than we’re comfortable with.” Though the WaPo’s right-wing blogger idea wasn’t bad. “Preferably, don’t hire a plagiarist to do this…” Change traditional news-covering habits to avoid imbalances. (He told his Republican pumpkin story — those who have heard it once or twice before know what I’m talking about.)
  • Appert: The industry can’t survive without journalistic principles, BUT “profability is required to support good journalism.”

(For the answers to a few more questions, check out Edupodder Steve Sloan’s podcast, recorded last night after the panel discussion.)

My take: First one to figure out a new business model for newspapers WINS.

Personally, I think the print newspaper should either be a luxury item or a rock-bottom bare-bones tabloid. Perhaps both, eh? Charge more (alot) for the fat luxury version, and charge advertisers more (alot) to reach the demographic that can afford it. In the tab version, print just top national news, more local news, sports, and the funnies. Make the tab free, with appropriate ads for the demographic it reaches. The luxury version is what subscribers get at home, the tab is what you pay 50 cents for at the newsstand, and the online edition is completely free, with lots of multimedia, audio, video, opinion, blogs, forums, and comments are on everywhere. But that’s just me.

15 thoughts on “Who Needs Ink? A panel discussion on the Future of Newspapers”

  1. These conversations always crack me up. There are a handful of experts in this country who can fix the classified model. I am one of them. A SJS grade as well. I was one of a group of managers who ran the Merc classifieds prior to 1995. It was a gold minr and we never let a competitor get the best of us. In this interaction, you have a bunch of journalist sitting around wondering where the money is going to come from…how about getting a group of journalist talking to advertisers, or a group of media techs talking to journalist along with classified print and online experts. There is NO conversation going on including all parties, everyone is assuming…heck, there wasn’t even a READER involved in your conversation….Janet DeGeorge


  2. As the Newspaper Association of America is saying: newspaper advertising is a destination not a distraction.
    As soon as retailers learn to make their web advertising as useful as their print advertising, then Sunday paper fat with inserts will be less valuable because they will be online or in your RSS reader.
    Imagine the savings by eliminating the printing, distribution and insertion charges. Makes the loss of classified pale by comparison.
    Why weren’t stock tables killed earlier? Because the old white guys running the newsroom and the newspaper still used them. When profits turned south, they started to listen.
    Here’s the thing that should go this year: sports agate!


  3. Newspapers are dinosaurs that are doomed to lumber along until they fall over dead.

    Their demise will be an example of business incompetence for decades. Nearly every decision during the last 30 years has been misguided.

    Instead of focusing on new technology, the pseudoeditors obsess over tiny page design details that no readers care about. Instead of these people being called out as the idiots they are, they are shielded from debate.

    I also got a laugh out of the editor’s note about referring to new graduates as cheap labor. Newspapers want “cheap labor”; they don’t care about quality. Even the youngjournos.org site touts being called “cheap labor” because the young journos with a sense of entitlement know they can get into the large newsrooms without paying any dues under that format.


  4. The fact is no one does what newspapers do. No one. And that’s the key. The TV stations, the bloggers, the advocacy groups, the lawyers, the professors— all those people that use information gathered (sometimes painstakingly) by print journalists use it FOR FREE. That’s ridiculous. If newspapers could charge just bloggers 25 cents for every newspaper article they quote or base a blog on, they’d be rich. Professors can copy articles from newspapers and pass it out to their classes, but try to copy a chapter of a book and they’d be sued.


  5. I was there. I think the whole issue was about finding the “new” business model for printed news. It’s interesting to note that we had the same discussion in my home country Sweden some years ago. Disregarded that newspaper reading are unproportionally high in Sweden, Swedish newspapers already have started to adapt to the Internet. And new printed ones have emerged. For example Metro (U.S. http://www.metro.us/ The original http://www.metro.se/ ) is a hugely successful Swedish printed newspaper innovation, with a completely new business model. http://dkreiss.blogspot.com/2004/09/early-this-summer-i-returned-to-new.html
    It’s available for free at local public transport designed to be read the time it takes to commute from the suburb to work. Today it’s the largest Swedish daily. An interesting side effect with Metro is that young people’s knowledge of contemporary life and events has been notably better the last years. They read Metro.


  6. I think it is too soon to know what that model will be. I think perhaps the future may be starting to emerge around a model of services+search+mapping+mobile devices. Somebody has to figure out a value ad there for journalists.
    About the bathroom test, I think tools like origami+rss+wireless, e-paper will start to break down the aversion to using devices rather than tree-paper and that soon we will be able to take our content anywhere including the bathroom without going to print. I think the cost of energy alone is going to doom the print model, other issues just hasten it’s demise.
    The emerging consumer market will see print as alien as we now see transcontinental rail passenger travel. I think books too will meet a similar fate.


  7. Ryan, that was comprehensive. One small correction, please: I said blogs are a proxy word for varying kinds of conversational media, not a “foxy” word…


  8. Ryan, I think your concluding remarks make more sense than a good bit of what was said by the panelists. I have come to the conclusion, though, that journalists (such as myself) are the last people who are going to be able to save the newspaper industry, because how we use media is different from how the typical person uses media. I’m sorry, but most Americans, even most broadband users, did not read the wire report online last night. Appert, perhaps because he is not a journalist, is the only one who seems to understand that the typical consumer is neither a futurist nor a media obsessive.


  9. Thanks Dan – I corrected your “foxy” statement about blogs to “proxy.” I did think it was odd to call the word “blog” anything close to sexy…

    David – I don’t think the already-read-it folks are necessarily refreshing Google News or the NY Times site or CNN.com before they go to bed every night, but they might be catching the 11 o’clock local news, or a bit of radio on their commute, or hearing from their kids or spouses about as much as they’ll get the next morning from the first three grafs of a wire story that hits their doorstep at 5:30 a.m.

    If you’re going to print a day-old story, there better be a local angle or a source I didn’t hear anywhere else, or a great photo, or a banner headline that makes me realize the importance of the story.

    But yeah, I’m a futurist media obsessive.

    As for the “bathroom test,” I’m not really a take-the-laptop-into-the-john kind of guy, and I don’t think I would do it with my e-paper/tablet/origami newspaper either.

    But that’s just me.

    Oh, and as far as the “sports agate” goes — you’ll pry my baseball boxscores out of my cold dead hands, but the “Transactions” page is a waste of trees. And keep your hands off the comics and the crossword — when kids do read newspapers, that’s what sucks them in. I started with comics, then sports, then the crossword.

    Seriously, as recently as 1997, I was pretty much buying the New York Times to do the crossword on the subway, but got sucked into reading the whole thing on a regular basis. Funny how that worked out.


  10. agarre says bloggers should pay newspapers for the stuff they use. where I live, if the local fishwrap didn’t have me and another blogger named the black rod to steal from, they wouldn’t have anything new in their wasted treeware.


  11. This is a variation of a point I’ve already said before and told Ceppos after one of his talks. I think newspapers need to focus on what they do best. What that is, I’m not sure, but one reason I read papers less and bloggers more is expertise. What is a journalist’s expertise in? I really don’t know (maybe cuz I’m not a journalism student). But I know that it isn’t informed commentary.

    As a reader, I’m a helluva lot more interested in hearing what an economist who can write well has to say about the economy than a journalist who interviews economists and quotes them but doesn’t really understand enough to figure out when they’re being snowed (a long-time beef of Brad DeLong. Ditto for law and other areas. They need to cede this territory to bloggers and concentrate on something else, like information gathering.

    As for money, I don’t really have any answers. Advertising and subscriptions don’t seem to work very well for newspapers nor blogs except the top tier. Micropayments is one idea that always pops up, but I think it’s a ways away. I doubt the model of bloggers paying papers will fly either, because media outlets that charge bloggers will simply get linked less. I think the harsh reality is similar to that faced by the music and movie industries: the amount of money available in the field is going to decrease permanently. The best of the best will still get by, but for everyone else, the salad days are over.

    But this is good news for consumers.


  12. Oh, nice round-up, by the way. Wish I’d been there.

    And can you add a comment preview button the next time you have gobs of time and makeover your site again?


  13. Universities should buy newspapers. It’s simple–Stanford could buy the Mercury News and turn it into one of the main things you’re supporting when you donate to the university. Or partner with the Merc such that the Merc goes nonprofit and buys itself out. There’s a reason NPR is the only expanding journalistic endeavor–newspapers are all going to have to run like the New Republic or a small-town baseball team–losing money much of the time, but winning just enough to stay competitive.

    If Stanford bought the Merc, think of the synergies. Professors always need a way to get their expertise out–a daily newspaper is a great option. Put a column from someone with great expertise and a good narrative voice on the front of each section. Professors need newspapers to do much of their research–they are the secondary sources that are used. So get students out there doing the research that makes things front-page stories. Double the size of the Washington Bureau and investigate everything that doesn’t make money; then print it, too.

    I’m still developing this one, but there are a lot of great options, and it would save good papers from oblivion and give universities the role in the community that they should possess.


  14. In reading the article and the many replies here, I still suspect that one of the leading problems in print media is the idea of the cookie cutter. A corporate blue print is built around a strategy that works well in one town or region. Hey, that guy’s beating budget on his numbers – we should all do what he’s doing. Not necessarily.

    Small town papers remain strong – stronger (in terms of readership per capita) than many metro publications – primarily because of independent design as opposed to cookie cutter approaches. McDonald’s and WalMart have learned that modifying franchise and box store offerings for the sake of local individuality is crucial to successful operations. We take their ads, but don’t learn by their example. Instead, we blindly try what “Bob” three states over is trying, because if it works for him, it’ll work for us. It better, because corporate is banking on it. Why in the world are we surprised when these things fail?

    We should also work to get away from using the same training for each and every paper. Janet DeGeorge has a post here; she is gifted in her field. She knows a lot about liners and how to pull in the bucks to keep the head office guys happy – in most cases. A couple of years back I attended a training that resulted in my paper changing the layout of the automotive liners. The sort changed us from year-based to make-based. That cookie cutter doesn’t work in my market. The folks out here in the boonies who are shopping the liners for a car are searching by price, which correlates most closely with year. Sure, plenty of folks shop by make, but they aren’t looking for a private party discount. Rather, they are the shoppers considering lease options and purchasing extended warranties.

    When I voiced my concerns to the publisher, I got a “she’s been doing this longer than either of us” speech. I agree on that. She’s got a gift and knows what she’s doing on most items. However, I was born and raised here, and have a good idea on how poverty-level folks shop – and it sure isn’t by make.

    (no disrespect intended Janet – I just know this rural market better)

    Plenty of papers promote “local control”, but if that’s the case why do they all look the same? Surely ten publishers all over the US aren’t on the same page at the same time? Reality – they aren’t. And their readers aren’t either. Let them get to know their markets, and adjust their product according to reader wishes instead of using the cookie cutter. We can’t pull all the readers away from the online products, but something a little more localized – hometown – could be demonstrating better results. – Starla Nickel


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