A friend who is a web editor asked on Facebook what her journalist friends think of the news that the new owner of the Orange County Register is going all-in on a print-first approach to news.
My initial response was that it was “goofy.” After letting the idea simmer for a few hours, I can substantially amend my response.
First, I applaud the reasoning being used, as explained by editor Ken Brusic:
“The new owners have decided that the way they want to proceed with a business model is to really move from solely an advertising-based newspaper model to a subscriber-based one, and in order to accomplish that — basically, what we need if we’re going to charge more — is more quality in the newspaper.”
This is no small thing. Moving to a subscriber-based model means you believe you can make money primarily from the content you produce, not from finding advertisers who want to reach your subscriber base. Beefing up the staff, then, is just putting your money where your mouth is – the exact opposite of putting up a paywall while also cutting staff and/or pay.
That said, I still think there are limitations to the model. If the beefed-up Register succeeds, I tend to think it eventually will become a niche product for a high-information demographic. If smartly marketed – and keeping a free website for breaking news and pushes to the paper or an all-subscription site is a part of that – it would not be resigning itself to a forever aging and shrinking demographic, but it almost certainly would find itself with a small one: older than average, wealthier than average, better-informed than average. Not a bad demographic to have, for outside promotional events and whatever advertisers might remain, but not a mass-circulation base.
The main reason for that I think is entirely outside the control of the Register, or any news organization, as I summarized elsewhere in a completely different context on Wednesday:
“As Jeff Cole of the Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future has put it, the ongoing changes (facing the news industry) are not just technological but behavioral and comprehensive, of the same order as the changes that followed the advent of television, and anyone seeking to lead a business affected by them has to understand that.”
When my grandfather was a young man, it was an absolute given that if you read a newspaper, you did it after work. By the time my father started dating a pretty, young features writer at the Columbus (Ohio) Citizen-Journal, that was no longer a given. By the time I worked a summer internship at The Phoenix (Ariz.) Gazette, that was one of the few afternoon papers left in the country, and it was on its last legs.
Why the change? Were the morning papers that much better? In some cases they may have been, but that wouldn’t explain a nationwide phenomenon, so no. The change came about purely because of changes in people’s lives. It began to make more sense to people to read a morning paper. Their afternoons maybe became busier and busier, or the evening TV news filled their information needs better than a P.M. paper because the TV news was more up to date. Whatever the reason, it was less a vote on the afternoon paper than a symptom of larger trends in society.
Similarly, newspapers today are not facing financial trouble because they are “giving away” their content online – or, if you believe that is a genuine problem, not solely or even mainly because of it. Morning newspaper circulation had been in decline before most people ever heard of the World Wide Web. The advent of the Web, then the high-speed Web, then the mobile Web merely accelerated the trend and added on the burden of advertisers having new options for reaching people.
The decline of the printed newspaper can be seen as merely part of a continuum of change in how people choose to get information, and there’s no reason to think the change is stopping where it is now. And if that is the correct view, then restricting your information to print – even a high-quality, smartly marketed product – is swimming against the tide. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a living at it, but you are planting yourself squarely where the majority of people have decided they don’t want to be. You might be able to entice some to visit, those few who highly value what you have to offer, but the day will come that you are not and never will be a mass product again. Maybe that isn’t so important to you, and maybe journalism will be better served this way, but just understand where it is you are going.
Another excerpt from what I wrote in a different context Wednesday:
“The biggest obstacle our industry faces is not the tools, which are ever-changing and seemingly ever more powerful and diverse, but whether those leading the newsrooms can accept the necessity of change, even painful change, and find ways to adapt – without letting others keep focused on what is lost and how things used to be. The pace of change, and the related challenges, isn’t likely to let up.”
The reactions my web editor friend has gotten to her post are (as of this writing) largely from the “focused on what is lost and how things used to be” end of the spectrum. There is no Ghost Dance for newspapers. What’s past is past. You can celebrate it, but you can’t bring it back.