Friday, February 27, 2009

Rocky Mountain News Couldn't Weather Rocky Economy

It's a sad day for those who appreciate journalism. The Rocky Mountain News has published its last edition.

For the last decade or so we've been hearing about newspapers folding. It has been easy to write that off as "bad management" and "being unwilling to move with the times" and other such things. Unfortunately, that trend has now reached the newspapers that are the bastions of all that is right about journalism. The Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Sun and the Chicago Tribune are just some of the major papers in bankruptcy. The reason we recognize the names of those papers is not just because they're from big cities, it's because they have done stellar work over the years.

Read the story about the Rocky Mountain News. (Online, of course.)

Obviously, the times have changed. We get much of our news online these days. And I'm one of those people. I haven't subscribed to a newspaper for decades. Yet, if something is happening in town that I want to know about I go online to the newspaper's website. Where would I go if that weren't there?

I realize I'm part of the problem, but so far no one has created a way for me to be part of the solution. If they charged me a few pennies every time I wanted to read a story I'd be happy to pay it. But you're going to have to make the search function really good so I'm getting what I really want. And I'm not going to pay a buck for one story, when a subscription only costs $10 for a month - it's not like music that has repeat value. It's that whole fairness issue of how much is any one story worth compared to how much is in the paper as a whole. It then becomes an issue of how many things are you covering that people want to read about. Charge me more for huge, massive pieces - maybe as I read, so I know if it's worth continuing to pay for.

But I don't want a subscription. I don't want the physical paper in my space. I don't want to create that much environmental waste. I'm not at all interested in huge parts of what the newspaper prints, and I'm unwilling to pay for that. A prime example is that there is an entire section devoted to sports. I don't care about sports. Automatically I'm tossing 1/2 to 1/3 of a product I've just bought. What kind of sense does that make? None. You wouldn't accept it with any other product. I think this is why niche publications are not suffering while general products are.

Make it simple - you know how many words are in any given edition because computers will tell us that now. If a newspaper costs fifty cents, charge me a fraction of that based on how many words I want to read. If the newspaper really costs far more than that (which it does in reality) then come up with what it really costs and start charging people a fair and accurate amount. But don't punish me for reading online by wanting me pay a greater percentage of the costs.

And... hey... free advice for newspapers who are trying to do the charging online thing. Those of us who read online do not want a subscription. If we did we'd get the paper delivered. That is making it easy for you, not for us. You really, honestly, have to think differently. You've just moved your antiquated idea from the real world to the online world. It's not working in the real world - consider why that is instead of just importing it into another format. You need a new idea. I'm giving you one above. I'm not saying it's the best one, but it's one.

The ugly truth that newspapers haven't wanted people to know for a very long time is that subscriptions don't support the paper - they just provide a way to count readers. The money comes from advertisers. And, the really ugly truth is that newspapers put down the ads they have and fill in the rest of the space with news. But, much of that advertising money isn't coming in now. It's going to other things - like online sources.

A free press is essential to a free country. I'm sure of that. "Free press" doesn't necessarily mean newspapers of course, but other forms of the press are going to have to step up their game to fill in for newspapers. I've been a journalist for radio stations, TV stations and newspapers - they are different animals with different approaches. That's not to say radio and TV stations are not doing "real" journalism, but the way stories are covered is different in each medium because each has different limitations.

I'm a huge fan of the internet, but I'm careful about where I get my "news" from. Any bozo can write anything they want on the internet. I know. I'm one of those bozos doing that every day. Of course, what I'm writing is opinion and it's obvious because of the format. And when I do venture into something resembling "news" I follow standard journalistic practices. But, I'm not sure everyone is as selective in what they consider "truth." Of course, people read "The Enquirer," too. So, there you go.

We're making a new world. We just don't know what it looks like yet.

However, I feel certain that at some point in my lifetime the pendulum will swing back and it will be cool to subscribe to an ink on paper newspaper again.
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Linda said...

As someone who works for a local newspaper, it's truly, truly sad to see so many papers closing or filing bankruptcy. I do believe our print edition needs to change - as a lot of subscribers are our older generation. One problem with that is knowing what people want. I enjoyed reading your opinion, and I think we should try to find out other people's opinions too. For you sports isn't important, but there are a lot of people out there who read the paper ONLY for the sports section (my husband is one of those). If we knew what the general public wants in a newspaper, perhaps it would change the way they are produced. By the way, I am not a journalist and don't work in the newsroom. I'm an operations gal, and I think all of us who work for the newspaper industry need to work together to figure out what the newspaper of the future will look like. Because I truly want newspapers to survive!

Patsy Terrell said...

I realize sports are really important to some people and I'm not suggesting it should be done away with. But, to ask someone like me to pay for sports information is not going to work. So, charge us for what we want. I looked at the Joplin Globe this morning and realized that the only section I more than glanced at was "People," that had human interest stories. There was a story about our governor being tapped for a cabinet position, but I knew about that yesterday afternoon so I didn't read it. That is a prime example of the difficulty. Newspapers have to offer something more. I'm already getting the "news" so they've got to give me depth or background or something more to get me. And they've got to give me a way to only pay for what I'm using. In this day of computers it seems people could just go through and check a menu of what stories they wanted to see and that be delivered to their inbox. But, subscriptions don't work for people like me. We're not going to go for it because then we're paying for things we don't use and that makes no sense to us. I have a ton of ideas about how things could work, but - unfortunately - I see newspapers large and small just do the same things they've been doing for decades that are not working. A prime example is the subscription thing - just moving it online with no regard for the differences of the medium. at some point logic would dictate you'd say, "gosh, subscriptions aren't working... we need to do something else..." I'm not sure why they won't embrace new thinking and I'm afraid it's getting close to being too late. That is very sad. I do not want to live in a world where there are not people like Woodward and Bernstein, but I fear I may already be living in it and just not willing to accept it.