Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Newspapers!

I've noticed more and more talk lately about the pending fate of newspapers and wanted to share some of my own thoughts on the subject. The news I've seen lately ranges from prognosticators predicting their demise to headlines on www.drudgereport.com saying that there will be no bailout for newspapers.

Growing up newspapers were a big part of my life. My father worked for the Cleveland Press and my mother for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It gave me a healthy dose of balance for future years in that competitive dichotomy. The Cleveland Press closed abruptly leaving my father unemployed in the 80's for a bout 6 months, right at the point unemployment was running out he was hired by Pepsi, which he just recently retired from. My mother retired from the Plain Dealer a couple years ago through a buyout package, she had been there about 30 years. My parents weren't writers or editors or anything, they were either drivers (Dad) or a classified manager/credit collector (mom). So to them while the papers were very important in the end they were just a job.

I bring up my background because I think it provides some perspective on my thoughts of newspapers future. Through the years my parents have chastised me for not subscribing to the paper or in my Dad's case yelled at me when buying a competing soft drink product. Their sense of loyalty is a bit puzzling to me. Was one paper better then the other at the time they were both employed by them? Why demand loyalty to something blindly? My parent's focus in raising me was to teach me to develop my critical thinking, make decisions on my own (for their merits), and to keep a heavy dose of cynicism in my decision making process. Not to mention neither was ever enamored with their jobs, they weren't careers, they were jobs that paid well, but given an opportunity either of my parents would have jumped at the chance to do something else.

Don't be mistaken, I do understand why they stand by their companies, in their view for all the blemishes, these companies provided our small family a wonderful security and prosperous living and they were appreciative of that. I get that and am appreciative of that as well and of all of my parent's hard work during those years at their respective companies; however at the same time it has given them the inability to see the problems as it relates to those companies, especially the newspaper industry.

Enough history though, this post is about the problems I see in the newspaper industry. It would be easy to sit here and tell you it's as simple as the Internet. While it plays a factor, in my opinion it's just a small factor in some of the woes the newspaper industry is in. For my discussion, I'm going to focus on Cleveland's own Plain Dealer.

Here's my quick list of thoughts on the industry as a whole.

1. Physical paper's can't compete with online news.
2. Newspaper online sites suck.
3. Distribution choices for newspapers have created a generational gap.
4. Newspapers have done a poor job in grooming voices for a new generation.
5. Not many industries can survive as a dominant player for so long with so little evolution.

1. Physical papers can't compete with online news.

The web happened. In the last 15 years, we've seen an explosion of new technology which has been focused on providing news and information. This has created an even greater need for real time updates and 'need it now news', which of course have caused great harm to the newspaper industry. After all, how do you stay relevant when breaking headlines are yesterday's news before you even go to the presses? The answer is of course you don't. There's no way for the physical paper to compete with this fact, it's just not going to happen. And instead of working to reinvent themselves, as I'll point out in my fifth point, they've forged ahead with the exact same business model.

2. Newspaper online sites suck.

Ok, so maybe they haven't forged ahead with the exact same business model. After all, they all have websites with their print information available online. It's true, I can pull up www.cleveland.com and see stories from the print edition of the Plain Dealer. The truth is the website might be one of the worst designed sites ever. This format is used for other major newspapers as well, while I haven't researched all of them, I have seen it with www.nola.com and given the geographical distance between New Orleans and Cleveland, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that other publishers use this format as well.

The site is a mess visually, it's not appealing and in many cases appears tacky. (The car of the day or job of the day on the front page is a particularly nice touch for a news organization). Beyond the visual issues with the site, navigating the site is an effort in futility. It takes 5-6 clicks at least to find a corresponding print article or columnist. In addition it's always a hunt and search operation.

Let's take the sports page as an example. Categories on the left are broken down by team. And then there is junk on the left hand side as well, mobile weather sign-up, sports blogs (not the pd columnists), photo links (including share your own). It's a mess of irrelevance, then the days' headlines are put in the center with a paragraph of an article in type large enough that you get maybe one or two stories in the list. The rest of the page is devoted to contests and ads. In the lower right hand corner of the page, after scrolling down you can find a link to the columnists for the PD, but in order to get to a list of recent articles you have to click through at least two times, otherwise it shows up with the articles and the first paragraph in a list format like the main page.

With all of the ads and junk on the main page and every subsequent page it feels like your sports page is lacking in information. The articles feel like they are an afterthought and they usually are. While I will advocate that the newspaper needs to change some of it's ways. The consistency in your online editions for titles and headlines is inconsistent. Not to mention a bit wordy.

Here's an example: Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James plays the game he loves like the 2009 NBA MVP he is, says the Plain Dealer's Bill Livingston (this is how the article is titled from the columnist link). And on another page the title of the article is this: At his dominating best, James made defeat an impossibility in Game 1 -- Bill Livingston same article, a bit confusing if you were searching for it and while I don't have a copy of the print edition, I do wonder if it's the same title as either of these. Not to mention both titles kind of suck as headlines. Who's editing this content? And where's the consistency and why can't the same principles of creating headlines or titles from the print edition be used online. To the point statements that catch attention and summarize.

Other problems with the site. They've recently begun to try and provide new multimedia and real time updates on the site as well as podcasts, forums, and chatrooms. Here's the thing, you are my newspaper, nothing wrong with acting like it (you don't have to compete with the local news stations, but we'll get to that). Your video tends to suck as it's either user created content or something pulled from another site. Blogs by your columnists and chatrooms are fine, I guess, but your real time updates don't work. Reporting on the Indians game during the game looks stupid in the way your content is displayed (one of the two middle stories on your page). Again most of this goes back to your site design. Take a look at any sports site or news site, that was designed for the Internet age from the ground up and take some notes. I can't even begin to tell you if your content is any good for this new stuff as it's all over the place. Clean it up.


3. Distribution choices for newspapers have created a generational gap.

You stopped having paper carriers 10 years ago. In favor of adult operated driving paper routes. Guess what, it didn't work. You removed a cultural icon and a sense of community people had with the paper. They knew their paperboy/girl. It was a connection, instead you figured you could pay an adult less to do more. What you didn't count on is what I've heard from other people with home delivery. No one's accountable anymore if the paper doesn't show up and it's a hassle to call about it and wonder where it is. So people stopped subscribing. You took one of the things that was sort of unique to your existence and removed it. Don't be surprised now that people just don't have time for the paper. They especially don't have time for the paper when they have to go get it or their delivery causes them to spend time trying to track it down.

4. Newspapers have done a poor job in grooming voices for a new generation.

Where's my 2000 version of Dick Feagler? Where is a columnist that connects with his reading audience? Newspapers have horribly failed in developing any kind of modern connection with Generation X, Y, etc. Newspapers used to be skilled at developing voices for our community and even if we didn't agree with them, we respected them. What I see now is more of the same which I can get on talk radio, they have a columnist spill vitriol from the left and then another from the right. Shock and awe seems to be the focus.

5. Not many industries can survive as a dominant player for so long with so little evolution.

Newspapers have done a horrible job at adapting. Most papers contain the same style of information they did from 20-30 years ago. On top of that, they've lost the strength of that format in not developing new writers for this day and age. When they've moved into new formats, they've been unable to utilize things that are good about their current format (consistency, journalistic skills, editing, headlines) and style and apply them to the new age format. They've also failed at utilizing new techniques in order to get their message across.

And that leaves me with my summary. I think there is a place for newspapers in the new Internet age. I think there are things they do that are better then any other news organization and while they have been painted as the villain by our political process for the last 10 years. I think the print organizations still hold themselves to journalistic standards that TV and Radio left behind long ago . Internet news is still too young to have an understanding of it. The fact is newspapers are losing site of who they are, they don't have to be the latest greatest technological site. They do have to be organized, understand how their content displays to the web, and get back to writing articles and pieces that are relevant. There is still a place for news to be done in writing without video or podcast. Figure out how to display it and develop some new voices and credibility before it's too late.

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