The Buzz Bin: Newspapers Are Like Department Stores

Geoff Livingston over at The Buzz Bin makes a great analogy – Newspapers Are Like Department Stores:

For department stores, many chains found their death in a trojan horse — the mall. With the rise of the mall, department stores were asked to anchor these megaplexes. But inside the smaller stores were more nimble, better competitors who specialized in deeper lines of products. Electronics, women’s shoes, hardware, whatever it was, from big box to pretzels chains took shoppers away from many department stores.

Ironically, like the mall, the Internet was supposed to be the future of newspapers. But for some reason the 90s passed and the opportunity was never realized. Perhaps that crack known as print advertising was just too good to give up. Or maybe, change was really that hard.

And he’s right.  Department stores for decades was the jack of all trades families turned to for one-stop-shopping.  But then malls came along, inviting specialist stores who then competed within feet of one another for foot traffic and business.  Department stores couldn’t compete – sure J.C. Penney’s has a shoe department, but it’s no Foot Locker when it comes to selection, brands and sometimes price (well, maybe not price, but still).

Specialization and one-stop-shopping met at the mall.

For over ten years now that’s been happening with the news on the internet: newspapers have come to anchor media coverage online but other operations have set up that specialize and do some things better than those aiming to do all things.  Sure the New York Times has a sports section, but ESPN is just a dot-com away.

So it’s adapt or die.  But how to do that?

Cover what you do best. Link to the rest. “

This changes the dynamic of editorial decisions. Instead of saying, “we should have that” (and replicating what is already out there) you say, “what do we do best?” That is, “what is our unique value?” It means that when you sit down to see a story that others have worked on, you should ask, “can we do it better?” If not, then link. And devote your time to what you can do better.

As I linked to in March (Newspapers: Adapt Or Die), Newsweek is already doing this

Newsweek is about to begin a major change in its identity, with a new design, a much smaller and, it hopes, more affluent readership, and some shifts in content. The venerable newsweekly’s ingrained role of obligatory coverage of the week’s big events will be abandoned once and for all, executives say.

“There’s a phrase in the culture, ‘we need to take note of,’ ‘we need to weigh in on,’ ” said Newsweek’s editor, Jon Meacham. “That’s going away. If we don’t have something original to say, we won’t. The drill of chasing the week’s news to add a couple of hard-fought new details is not sustainable.”

If you can’t make it your own, focus on what you can make your own and hat tip others for the rest of it.

For some that may not be enough.  Sarah Lacy has advice at TechCrunch that’s a bit more aggressive but sounds like a perfect business model for succeeding online and off:

There’s an obvious option for these magazines, and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about it: Ruthlessly collapse the print and online staffs, run everything online as soon as they write it, except one or two cover-length, long-form glossy pieces. Those will anchor the print issue, rounded out by the best stories from online. Then cut the money spent on trying to court new subscribers, shifting the entire marketing budget to promote the Web or real-life conferences and branded events. You could even use reader comments to flesh the online pieces out more for the print edition, driving more engagement in both the print and online versions. Voila! One publication, not two pretending to be one. And guess what? One publication is a hell of a lot cheaper, even if it’s printed on dead trees.

Give them something online many times a day, save the meat for the print and utilize your audience for filler when the magazine/paper comes out.  Now a reader can participate and have a vested interest in the success and invest in the media accordingly.

Not only does this allow media to remain relevant but also supports newspapers and magazines doing what they can do better than most any other blogger out there: WRITE ACTUAL ARTICLES.  Real meat, investigative pieces that take up 5-10 pages and really involves some journalism the reporting that they are better trained, equipped and financed to do.  Get a handful of kids fresh outta college to do your online content for $25-30k a year a starting, pay a couple veterans the bigger bucks to deliver the meat, groom the kids to eventually be able to do the same, and suddenly you have yourself a working paper on the relatively cheap.

This isn’t the way newspapers have worked, nor is it how they’re adapting.  Instead they’re cutting the bigger bucks veterans, stocking up on prospects on the cheap, and leaving them with no one to learn the real ins and outs of journalism from.  At some point its unsustainable, the kids don’t know how to provide any real meat and the hemorrhaging of money continues without anyone with the know how to stick their thumb in the dike.

Papers are going to keep failing.  Even if some make the harsh adjustments, it may be too little too late.  Just as many department store chains are now long and gone, so will many papers.  Others will survive, linger on as a shell of their former selves, or maybe convert and become something different, something better.

1:00pm UPDATE:

David Simon, creator of The Wire, gets it wrong:

Simon told the Senate Commerce Committee today bloggers don’t go to city council meetings, or know what the hell is going on if they do — a clichéd, out of touch refrain common among newspapermen who can’t be bothered to do any reporting on the assertion. The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed from a Newark Star-Ledger columnist to this effect:

Don’t expect that Web site to hire somebody to sit through town-council meetings… a lot of bloggers will be found gasping for breath under piles of pure ennui. There is nothing more tedious than a public meeting.

I found this argument odd, because as a newspaper reporter who spent a few years covering a town much like Baltimore — Oakland, California — I often found that bloggers were the only other writers in the room at certain city council committee meetings and at certain community events. They tended to be the sort of persistently-involved residents newspapermen often refer to as “gadflies” — deeply, obsessively concerned about issues large and infinitesimal in the communities where they lived.

The whole Gawker piece by Ryan Tate is good and has some fine examples of citizen journalism.