Thursday, January 07, 2010

Who, What, Where, When, Why, And How ...

Sigh.

Can someone please apply the brakes on the progress train? I don't want it to stop, but a little drag to slow things down a bit would please me.

I realize that the aforewritten sentence places me squarely, irrevocably, smack dab in the center of "old." That's fine. I'm 40 now. AARP has me in its sights. I do wonder, though, if I will ever be old enough to eat those wee senior servings of food and feel full. What's that about?

My point, though, is that things are changing and time is fleeting and it's all too fast. And that's not the stirrings of a mid-life crisis talking. I'm all about getting older. I know I'll accomplish far more in my 40s and 50s than I did in my 20s and 30s. (Hey, that won't be hard to do! Insert rimshot here!)

But this morning, my pal Paul (or someone who works for Paul's company) posted this on Facebook: "So which is it? Is the new Apple tablet friend or foe to the newspaper industry? As important, what will newspapers and other local news media have to do differently to take advantage either way?"

I read that and thought, "It's too late."

I don't mean to go all Droopy Dog on you here, but I foresee a time when newspapers, as actual newspapers, will cease to publish. There will always be news-gathering and -disseminating organizations, but I truly believe we're witnessing the last days of newspapers.

I was talking with one of my brothers about this a few months ago. The explosive growth of the Internet has made newspapers entirely obsolete. Twitter was the last straw. We can now get our news instantly. Granted, only 140 characters at a time, but in our age of instant newsification, the content in a newspaper is dated before it's printed.

"Analysis!", the industry cried when it was becoming clear that the quicksand of the Internet was sucking it down fast, when it suddenly found itself grasping for whatever might keep it from going under.

Consider again, Twitter. We've conditioned ourselves, in a very short amount of time, to get information in very, very concise summaries. Call it the headlinification of news. Granted, there's more to a story than can be Tweeted, but these days, readers want gists of stories in the moment, and they seek out substance later, usually online.

I don't receive the print edition of any newspaper. I've subscribed to and canceled several over the years. And why do I cancel? Not because I can read them online for free. I'm happy to pay for a product that provides value. I pay for Internet service. I pay for satellite service. I pay for DVD service. I pay for hosting service for my domain.

There's talk of Facebook starting to charge for its service. People are screaming. Give me a break. Yes, it's been free. But "free" isn't a sustainable model, no matter how popular a site, no matter how much advertising it hopes to attract.

The advertising model worked well for newspapers and magazines. They weren't making their money off of their subscribers. Their subscribers enabled them to charge more money for ads. But newspapers and magazines are dropping like flies. And advertising budgets aren't what they used to be.

So would I continue to use Facebook if I had to pay for it? Yup. As long as I thought I was receiving a proportionate amount of value for the monthly fee.

But newspapers? They're in a downward spiral. When it became apparent that this Internet thing wasn't just a fad, newspapers scrambled to create presences online. I seem to remember that the first staff of the Chicago Tribune's online effort consisted of three people. And they posted content from the newspaper onto the Internet. Get it here or get it there was the model. OK.

But as online presences grew stronger, as advertising revenue started to shift online or, as in recent years, go away, newspapers cut staff to save money. The problem was, the staff being cut? They were the ones who produced the content of the newspaper, in print or online. So the content started shrinking or lacking depth. And as there was less and less worth reading, people read less and less. We all like to look at pictures, sure, but there are only so many online photo galleries you can justify and still call yourself a newspaper.

The industry laughed at the creators of USA Today. And what's the No. 1 paper in the country?

The pace of life has changed. We want our information in short bursts. Maybe we've just gotten lazy. Or maybe there's now so much information coming at us all the time, all day, every day, that the last thing we want is more.

I'm as guilty as the next gal. Doreen prints out articles (because she doesn't like to read long stories on a screen) and then sends them along to me when she's done if she thinks I'll have some interest, and I love receiving my Doreen-O-Grams in the mail, but if anything is more than a few pages long, odds are I'll only read a few pages. And then I'll set it down to come back to it later, but later never comes. Is anything in Newsweek longer than three pages now? I'll have to check. But a lot of what I read in that publication fits on a single page.

I even read fewer books than before. My consumption habits have changed. I want to skim everything, not delve into one thing. It's the intellectual equivalent of shallow breathing.

And that's not good. We need a more-informed public. We need people to care more about politics and less about celebrity gossip.

Me, I can and am retraining my brain to read longer-form stories, to return to books, actual books, not the screen of an e-reader.

But I don't see a day when I'll subscribe to a newspaper again.

I recently looked into getting Sunday-only delivery of the New York Times. That's the one paper I'd like to receive. Sunday-only delivery is $7.50. Per week. Assuming four Sundays in most months, that's $30 a month. For four editions of a newspaper.

Granted, it's the grand dame of Sunday papers, but there again, newspapers have done themselves a disservice. By steeply discounting their rates to subscribers in order to boost their ad bases, they've devalued their products in the minds of consumers.

Not that I would, but I could get Sunday delivery of the Chicago Tribune for .99 cents a week. I don't even know what the newsstand prices is these days, but I think it's north of $2.00. And so my brain thinks, "Wait. If I go to a store and buy it, it costs two dollars, but someone will bring it to my home for 99 cents?" And my very next thought is, "Well, you get what you pay for."

So the notion of spending $30 to get four newspapers doesn't make sense to me. I recognize how much effort goes into producing a Sunday paper, especially the New York Times', but I've also been conditioned to not pay a lot for ink on paper.

The answer, then? I have no idea. I'm glad I'm not a newspaper consultant. The most logical suggestion I've seen is micropayments, a user's account being charged a penny or some nominal amount every time they click on a story to read it or click through to the next page. A fee-for-service model makes sense, I guess. Those who consume more will pay more.

But the key was, is, and always will be the content. If there's no "there" there, they won't come. It's been true of print editions and their endless redesigns and it's true of electronic editions, too.

The hurdle, then, is how to get people to come back, how to convince them to care again.

As soon as I have the answer to that, I'll become a newspaper consultant.

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