Why are print newspapers dying?

The inevitable has happened. A national newspaper in the U.S. is going totally digital. No more paper newspaper. I read about this on Andrew Keen’s site in, The death of print. The newspaper in question is the Christian Science Monitor and they refer to it as a “Web-based strategy.” I think this translates as, “We don’t know if this will work but our fingers are crossed and we’re hopin’.”

Here’s what the Monitor ???? ??? ????actually says, “We plan to take advantage of the Internet in order to deliver the Monitor’s journalism more quickly, to improve the Monitor’s timeliness and relevance, and to increase revenue and reduce costs. We can do this by changing the way the Monitor reaches its readers.”

But what does all this really mean? Clearly, print newspapers are dying out and the Internet audience has grown dizzyingly. Everyone knows a web site is cheaper to produce than a newspaper or magazine. So your costs are reduced. And everyone knows the potential audience on the web is huge. Finally, if you look at the numbers over the last few years, you can see the audience drift to the web.

The assumption is that everyone everywhere wants to do everything on the web. Thus, newspapers die and web sites flourish. Except, not all print vehicles (like magazines, as Keen points out) are dying. And all web sites don’t flourish. In fact, I think if I had stats in front of me they would show that most web sites fall flat and fail. They’re kind of like restaurants that way.

Moving a print vehicle to the web won’t save it. You need to know what people are looking for when they go to the web. In this case, what are they looking for in terms of news.

With the sense of user empowerment the web provides, I would argue that one of the things that has changed is who calls the shots in determining what is news. The editorial aspect of “news” is vanishing. Users are their own editors, particularly with aggregator tools like Google Reader that allow a user to, in a manner of speaking, design his or her own newspaper in terms of content and, to a limited degree, even the look of it. So, while you may need someone to write the content, you hardly need an editor. You just toss a story in the mix of stories, a back end tool decides what category it should go into, and there you go.

But …

From the end user perspective, you don’t know what you don’t know. There are oodles of stories out there. In one category alone there will be oodles. How do you sort through them all to find the ones that are actually interesting? How do you determine when a story that you would normally ignore because it’s dull, dull, dull (at least to you), needs your attention because this story is different, it will affect you in a big way (like a government’s budget)? What prioritizes the stories?

I imagine you can find a tool somewhere, or develop one, that could do this, though I’m skeptical. But even if you do, how do you automate the end user? How do you manage how he or she looks at a web page so the stories the person would gravitate to are actually seen?

All of these questions are really me trying to argue that there is a value to having an editor, someone who determines what is prioritized and, to a limited extent, placed on the page. Of course, the problem here is the editor and how good or bad he or she is, which may really be a matter of how well they know the audience.

What the web has actually shown is that what has traditionally been thought of as news has changed. And this may be why editors are in such a precarious position now. Editors are usually journalists (there may be exceptions) and journalists often have a singular focus in what they think of as news: politics is a big deal. Users, however, have much less interest in politics. It waxes and wanes. It’s not that they are disinterested. It’s that they are really only interested in the political stories worthy of their attention.

If you monitor traffic on a news site, the biggest stories will be political and local crime. Until the next day when the top story is actually a feature piece on the weather or retirement savings. On another day it may be a starlet’s secret love child. What users do is scan a page and go to whatever they think is worth their attention. Stories that are highlighted are more easily seen but, unless of interest, visibility won’t help them. You need to know your audience. And you need to know when a story, even though it isn’t usually of interest to that audience, is important enough it has to be hightlighted. You need to know when to go into left field and grab a story that isn’t in the normal run of things but is of value and will garner initial interest if only for it’s curious nature.

For a blog post, this has gone on way longer than I intended. And I’ve pretty well lost whatever point I was trying to make. I think it was basically this:

What the web allows for is better editors because they can literally see, almost immediately, what users are interested in and that can help them better choose what to highlight. Eliminating them may be the cheap way to go – one less cost – but ultimately will turn a site into a vanilla flavour, which translates into a slow internet death.

For users, the web allows them to have a voice, if only through their actions (or lack thereof) on a site. Better still, where ratings, comments and other tools are available, they can become engaged in ways they couldn’t before.

In other words, editors and users work better together and, I believe, make for a better, more successful site. Of course, in the interests of full disclosure, I need to mention that I’m currently working as an editor so I’m not exactly impartial on this matter.

As for the Christian Science Monitor, their “Web-based strategy” will fail unless they see it as a “User-based strategy. (And I apologize for constantly referring to people as “users.” I’m a user too and the term, while functional, is utterly impersonal – something you can’t afford to be online.)

Are print newspapers dying? Probably. But the medium by which something is delivered changes over time and that’s the case here. However, news is not dying. It’s definition, however, probably has changed. And if you look at newspapers with a broader definition, they’re alive and well. Online. They are only threatened by the “vanilla-izing” brought about from ill-considered cost reductions.