Can Newspapers Be Saved?

There are two reasons why I left the newspaper business and, at the moment anyway, have no intention of going back. The first was that many of the people controlling the business today do not care all that much about journalism. The second was that, among those who do care, hardly any have a clue about what has hit them, or what to do about it.

I don't have any magical suggestions, but it's clear the future of most newspapers is paperless, free, and heavily local in character. But these are very broad descriptions; there is still an enormous range of possible outcomes, good and bad, even with those preconditions.

For instance, the "hyperlocal" idea is useful but inadequate if taken literally, given that we're in an era when categories of local and global are increasingly blurred. Virtual communities know no geographical boundaries. Both economic globalization and climate change have serious local and global effects, and political/policy fixes will increasingly have to straddle those categories. The more "hyper" the local in newspaper coverage, and the more it becomes just a buzzword, driven by business models that don't incorporate an understanding of the community or the world, the more blinkered and navel-gazing the local newspaper will become. Not good, given where they're starting from.

Lee Abrams is Tribune's new innovation director, coming from XM Radio and a long, highly successful career as a radio executive, and he's made a practice of writing long, stream-of-consciousness memos about what's wrong with newspapers. His latest is up on Romenesko. (Speaking of, why did Tribune -- apparently -- make Abrams abandon his blog? Seems like exactly the kind of reflexive, decidedly non-innovative corporate diktat that is killing the business.) It's great to see an outsider and proven innovator looking critically at the business. But I'm not loving what I'm reading:

*Changes are made but they are SO subtle that no-one outside of the building notices.

*Writers and Editors content is undermined by a generally dated and tired look, that is tweaked but not noticeably evolved.

*Are rife with assumptions. That people will find great stories...that the paper will get credit for breaking stories...that the writers are known commodities...that the paper is the center of the local news universe. Well---not necessarily. Historically yes, but in 2008, not a given. Gotta REALIZE WAR HAS BEEN DECLARED by the Google's and Fox's...and FIGHT BACK...RECLAIM YOUR TURF! Ain't gonna happen by osmosis.

*Are not very aggressive. At least by today's standards. If a radio station had the circulation declines facing newspapers, all hell would break loose and you'd see the big guns pulled out. I don't see that in newspapers. When AOL started declining, they blew up the company. My point is that we gotta fight back... fight back to reclaim. It'll never be 1938 again, but there's no reason newspapers can't aggressively get in the 2008 competitive groove and grow again.

Well, yeah. But all of this has been obvious for years. If Tribune needs to spend big bucks to hire a proven innovator to come in and write memos telling its employees what any reader can see, things are worse than even I imagined. And while a little old-fashioned fire in the belly can't hurt, it's not a solution. Abrams mentions Fox and Google as the competitors, the enemy newspapers must gird themselves to battle. But if you're at at a medium-sized, Tribune-owned paper, are Fox and Google really your chief competitors? How are newspaper execs, editors and reporters supposed to get lathered up for a fight when they don't even know who or what their rivals are anymore? (Blogs? XM Radio? iPods? Jon Stewart?)

Again, no brilliant solutions here. But newspapers do need to blow things up. The current model, with its layers of editors, copy editors, classified ad reps and pillar-of-the-community caution, has to go. Papers need to experiment, try new formats, new models. There's the open-source idea advanced by, or by local startups such as Paul Bass's New Haven Independent. That's one way to inject both new perspectives and some buzz into the business at the same time. But papers also have to protect and nourish two things they already have -- reporting and the newspaper "brand." Original voices and journalistic credibility are pretty much all papers have left -- and they're good both for making money and for the healthy functioning of society.