Each morning, I walk outside and pick up my copy of The Miami Herald, rescuing it from my driveway after its morning skid along the asphalt. Sometimes I wonder how many dinosaurs like me remain, actual subscribers who read the print edition of a daily newspaper. Except for the Sunday edition, which still has some heft, the Herald continues to thin.
Experts and novices alike have been waiting to "call the body" on dailies like the Herald for more than a decade. But the publication lives on, as do dozens of other "major" dailies around the country. Not only are the metro dailies thinner, but the long-term revenue model appears untenable (has for years). And a daily newspaper has to be the least "green" product imaginable -- it's made from trees and is usually obsolete a few minutes after it hits your stoop.
While the advertising model is a monster challenge and the printing costs are exorbitant, what I believe is truly grinding down dailies is their continuing effort to try to be media generalists. Papers like the Herald cover national news, the crime beat, entertainment and food, fashion, sports, neighborhood happenings, and on and on. If I tried to get venture capital funding for a business that wanted to cover all these areas on a metro level, I would get laughed out of the room. Speaking to my friend and really smart marketing guy Carlos Blanco about this, he was cold-bloodedly forthright: "The Internet killed the generalists." My take: He's right and the big dailies don't know it or can't seem to admit it.
Meanwhile, the specialists soar.
One of the breakout stars of the 2012 election coverage was a wonky blogger named Nate Silver. His FiveThirtyEight.com blog was licensed for publication by the New York Times, and for the final weeks of the campaign, his polling prognostications were like "must-see TV." Friends on Facebook were checking his blog several times a day with cult-like verve. Silver is the ultimate media specialist. His Wikipedia bio calls him "an American statistician, sabermetrician, psephologist, and writer." I don't even need to look those up; certainly, he's no generalist. A couple of days after the election, Silver appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (Watch it here). I'm guessing this was the first time Stewart featured a psephologist (which is an expert in the study and scientific analysis of elections -- okay, so I did look it up).
For local stories, specialists triumph, too.
One of the biggest Miami stories in recent memory is the saga of Ponzi schemer and ne'er-do-well former University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro. Yahoo! Sports first reported his exploits, which allegedly included supplying cash and prostitutes to football players. Somehow, a gifted specialist working for the editorial side of a flagging search engine swooped in and scooped the Miami Herald on one of its most prized beats.
Another big story, the steroid scandal involving Major League Baseball players, more UM athletes and others, was first reported by Miami's New Times, a paper with the main goals of muckraking and entertainment coverage.
And it's not just here. Do you think daily reporters in Chicago and South Bend, Ind., were happy to see Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o's story break on DeadSpin.com? Aside from learning the wacky details of the fake girlfriend, I was surprised to read that several members of the team of specialists from the Gawker.com-owned DeadSpin were actually interns.
Back home, generalist daily publications like the Herald are trying to cover subjects as varied as the Everglades, county hall, Castro, condos, Art Basel, the Heat and the humidity. It's an impossible mandate because the reporters, regardless of their talent, don't have the time to cover all of these areas well. And if they dig in on one topic, they will have to leave another unguarded -- and that's when the specialists will jump in and eat their lunch.
I'm not sure what the answer is for metro dailies. They face tremendous institutional pressure to be the catch-all media outlets in their markets. Sadly, I don't think it will necessarily be printing costs that lead to their ultimate demise. As long as metro dailies remain "masters of none," the specialists will continue to siphon-off their readers and their revenue.
Do you still get a daily newspaper delivered to your home or business? Let me know.