Could some newspapers be saved by specialization?

We know that newspapers are dying. It’s popular in new media circles to talk about the extinction of newspapers altogether, but as I’ve argued here before, that presumption ignores the split between newspapers as a physical print publication, and newspapers as providers or news. I believe that some newspapers (5-10%) will survive, but with an online presence only, as online news providers, even if the models surrounding that end point today aren’t yet clear or completely proven.

But what if there were an alternative path that might save even more newspapers? Not all newspapers, but some that would otherwise have died out.

We know that one of the main problems today with newspapers is the death spiral to the end. Classified advertising in newspapers is nearly dead, and general advertising continues to shrink. As newspapers lose money, they can only respond by cutting costs, and the leading cost at a newspaper is writing staff and support services (editors etc). The end result is cyclical: newspapers lose money, they cut staff, the quality and value of the paper declines, this results in less readers, which reduces advertising revenue, and around the cycle goes again.

We accept as a norm that newspapers cover a wide range of news. Everything from local, national and international news, sport, finance, celebrity news and gossip, and even offer comics and crosswords. The economies of scale created publications that had something for everyone, and it has worked well for a long time. But it doesn’t today. The internet has driven specialization, and advertising that efficiently targets customers. What if the answer to saving some newspapers was to use their diminishing resources to be the masters of specialized content, instead of going wide, and mastering nothing at all.

Former journalist Philip Meyer, currently the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina and author of the 2005 book “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age” thinks that specialization may save some newspapers.

He quotes Robert Picard, a media economist from a June presentation:

Newspapers “keep offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of content, and keep diminishing the quality of that content because their budgets are continually thinner,” he said. “This is an absurd choice because the audience least interested in news has already abandoned the newspaper.”

Meyer’s case is one of narrowcasting: newspapers trim down to a specialized product and survive by serving a narrow market well. The key is to “narrow your focus to the area that is the least vulnerable to substitution,” and Meyer believes that influence is the key:

the product least vulnerable to substitution is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.

Meyer notes that by news, he does not mean the “stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts,” but “processed information” based around “evidence-based journalism, something that bloggers are not good at originating.”

Not all readers demand such quality, but the educated, opinion-leading, news-junkie core of the audience always will. They will insist on it as a defense against “persuasive communication,” the euphemism for advertising, public relations and spin that exploits the confusion of information overload. Readers need and want to be equipped with truth-based defenses.

Newspapers might have a chance if they can meet that need by holding on to the kind of content that gives them their natural community influence. To keep the resources for doing that, they will have to jettison the frivolous items in the content buffet.

Meyer also argues that a shift to quality may also suit a shift in frequency, a less is more approach where newspapers shift away from daily publication, but deliver strong content when they do publish.

It’s an interesting take, and the argument of specialization has a strong economic case at a time of disappearing revenue in the industry. It won’t save thousands of newspapers, and many simply will refuse to go down this path, but if some existing players do shift focus, the chances of more surviving may increase. Where I disagree with Meyer is on the end result: he still talks of physical newspapers, where any natural end point must end up online, because the notion of news on paper is going to die no matter what anyone does to save it. But that doesn’t take away from the specialization point: newspapers narrowcasting, with a focus on being the best at what they do, become a more appealing product to a core of readers, and perhaps enough readers that they have a sustainable business well into the future.

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