Is the Axe Headed for Newspapers?

As 2008 winds down and we can't help but reflect on what has happened on Wall Street and in Detroit in just the last few weeks, the natural train of thought would be to wonder what's the next big industry to fall.

Unfortunately, I don't have to look any farther than my front doorstep every morning to see the answer -- the daily print newspaper.

Just like the Big Three, the newspaper industry has suffered from the same arrogance and greediness for profits that made it turn a blind eye to the direction of the nation's social conscience. Though publishers were aware that segments of their readership, especially future readers, were becoming much more environmentally conscious, the industry's attitude was along the lines of "they'll get over it."

So these same publishers created more content and/or new print products that demanded more dead trees that lead to some cities around the world actually fining newspapers for contributing to their city's litter problems, but newspapers still didn't get the message until it became apparent that readers did "get over it." They got over subscribing and reading on a daily basis their local newspaper.

Yet, one would think that an industry with such an illustrious history would gather their collective forces and fight to preserve the hallmark of their industry. Surprisingly, it looks like they've all turned over to die and are accepting without a fight that the newspaper is dead.

In 2004, it was a different story. In that year, I became editor of ideas magazine, a membership-benefit magazine for the recently retitled International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA). I was barely three weeks into my job when I found myself flying to Brussels, Belgium to cover the latest sensation happening overseas -- format change.

There was a lot of excitement from the European print industry because London's The Independent had taken the bold move to not just minimize its page width, but its entire print product. Basically, converting their broadsheet into a tabloid-like size.

At the same time, while publishers and editors in Europe were excitedly intrigued by the concept of format change and beginning to embrace the trend of free newspapers, there was a different story happening on this side of the ocean.

North Carolina journalism professor emeritus Philip Meyer published a book with a doomsday title: "The Vanishing Newspaper."

Because of the steady profitability of the U.S. industry and the newspapers' darling status on Wall Street at the time, there were very few people who took to heart Meyer's analysis. Then when they heard that he predicted the shelf life of the print product would end in April 2040, too many tended to dismiss his book without even reading it.

Yet, we currently see in the United States and some parts of the world, a scenario that gives credence to Meyer's predictions. Though some of the reasons may be different than what Meyer proposed, it's still playing out that many newspapers are doing things no one could have imagined just four years ago: drastically downsizing their staff, selling their venerated office space, consolidating operations with rivals, publishing the print product fewer days in the week, printing fewer pages, eliminating certain sections, converting to a strictly online news source, etc.

In the meantime, newspapers say they have bent over backwards to give readers what they want -- increased focus on hyperlocal news, incorporated blogs and citizen journalism into their operations, created young reader-specific products, utilized more video and audio into their web sites, along with, mobile phone applications -- the list goes on.

And after all this, there are still too many newspapers giving up because they say certain groups don't read the news(paper) anymore or this new generation will only get their news from the Internet or cite any other excuse of the day.

All I can say is that while newspapers say that they know what the problem is with readers, I don't think they still have a clue as to what their readers really want.

This realization came to me, oddly enough, after I saw a recent holiday shopping circular. There was a picture of an old-school record player, complete with the turntable and needle at the end of the extended arm. Dangling on the side of the record player, in place of the electrical cord, was another kind of cord -- a USB cord.

This cord connected to a computer. The idea is you play your old records and the music is instantly digitized to your computer so the files can be uploaded to an iPod.

Same music, different delivery.

Until now, there has existed a very narrow vision of what will save the print product. Because most of these measures are failing, the industry believes it's the readers who no longer love receiving their news in this fashion -- they're partly right.

When I was at INMA, I read the same studies that said the younger generation didn't like the feel of newsprint on their fingers or the idea of harboring an environmentally unfriendly product or how people didn't have time to read the newspaper because they had to rush to work or school in the mornings.

So, enormous amounts of newspaper budgets went into trying to innovate the product itself to appease readers based on two misperceptions: people don't like to read anymore and they only like to get their news from the Internet, a.k.a. their computers.

When I hear industry professionals say that people don't like to read these days, I have to wonder just how detached they are from what's going on in the world.

I know people like to read because I see it with the people who respond to my blog. They are of all ages and from all walks of life and they take the time to read my writings and take it even one step further, doing what most newspaper readers never do -- write detailed, thoughtful responses.

My blog isn't unique. The story is the same for all blogs, big and small. Blogs are as popular as they are because people do love to read. And I know they love to read the news because that is the one common element that drives all blogs.

Whether it's celebrity gossip, politics, foreign affairs, education, cooking, etc., bloggers have to read news to comment on it. Readers read bloggers and the news to respond adequately.

The second misperception is the real crux of the industry's problem: people only like to get their news from the Internet. In this day and age of instant gratification, it makes sense that people want what only the Internet can offer when it comes to news -- "immediate knowledge."

Yet, the fallacy is that they only want to get this "immediate knowledge" on their laptops or even cell phones. Both outlets have limitations: laptops are still bulky to carry around, no matter how light. Cell phone screens are too small to the point of being annoying because of the constant scrolling.

There is an alternative and surprisingly the industry has lacked the vision or the initiative to seriously address it -- a newspaper of the 21st Century.

Instead of pouring money into innovating their products into mere shadows of what they used to be, the industry should be working together to create a standardized delivery method that mimics the traditional attributes of the newspaper while implementing today's technology.

Such a product would appease both those older readers who still like to sit at the kitchen table and drink a cup of coffee while holding a product big enough to read whole stories without scrolling, light enough to tuck under your arm to take with you and technologically advanced to satisfy the need for "immediate knowledge" and sturdy enough to be reusable and green friendly.

There are some private efforts underway to recreate the newspaper product for the 21st Century. But so far their funding is limited and because of it the process is slower than what this industry needs it to be.

If this industry really knew their readers, they would know that people would embrace a different kind of newspaper that meets their needs of today.

As newspapers sink deeper and deeper into being a footnote in history, it's amazing that the industry has not declared an industry-wide state of alert and convened a task force to invest in funding and researching some of these private efforts or in developing their own initiatives.

There is time to save the print product. However, the industry must acknowledge the digital, high-tech era we live in and the fact that people have not lost their desire for the written word or even holding a print product -- as long as it reflects the age in which we now live.