Thursday, December 29, 2011

Are Newspapers Killing Themselves

Last night my wife and I got into another heated discussion over the state of the newspaper industry. Her paper of choice for the last twenty plus years has been the Contra Costa Times, a reliable rag that posted international news, local stories, and most especially local events, restaurant reviews, and the usual goings on for our small portion of the world. Mine is the Wall Street Journal.

Then the Coco Times changed format. Now it is a vague shadow of itself, much has been sliced out of the paper and homogenized until it has no heart or even soul. It is under the newish ownership of the BayAreaNewsGroup (which is a part of the MediaNews Group). By the way don’t you just love the “group” thing and the company name all scrunched together into one word, it’s so twenty first century!

Finally, after numerous calls wanting to know why we weren’t renewing (I’ll get to that shortly), the caller reminded us that if we canceled we would miss getting the all the coupons they put in the paper for stuff. I can assure you we don’t by the paper for the opportunity for coupons to buy stuff. It’s a nice bonus, like butter with the bread, but I don’t go to a restaurant for the butter or the bread. Besides we get the Penny-Saver every week for free if coupons were all we cared about.

What is the purpose of a newspaper today? News? A marketing platform? Comics? Sports? Local information? I am not sure that even the newspapers themselves know anymore. For most of the twentieth century the newspaper was essentially a CliffNote (there’s that same scrunching) version of the world’s events and local happenings (with local advertising). It was a morning cup of coffee with the world and a peak over your neighbor’s fence. Change can be a bitch.

What was driving this conversation was the pending iPad my wife wants (or essentially she through up her hands and said FINE!). My WSJ comes two ways to the house: by gasoline and digital. I am slowly weaning myself from the paper, delivered quite competently every morning with the Contra Costa Times, to the WSJ app on my iPad. (I feel so green and sustainable when I scan the newspaper on the iPad, I almost gush over the thought - NOT). She is hoping to get the news on the iPad as well as books and other information. The iPhone she bought, after a family crises a few years back, changed everything. It was then that the portable digital age started at the Randall household. Now all is chaos, the gatekeepers have left their self-appointed stations.

Anyway, back to the newspaper. Today, with multiple delivery systems, the consumer can tailor the input anyway they want: paper, phone, iPad, tablets, probably coming in the new TVs. Get some news from here, some info from there, tailor your data, you’re the gatekeeper, you wave off the unwanted chaff, and settle into your own self determined world. Often the old paper newspaper pushed stories in front of your nose, made you see the world, even the bits you didn’t want to see. Now you don’t have to, and isn’t that great? Or is it?

Newspapers and the whole publishing industry are faced with the fundamental fact of trying to reestablish their consumer base. Dumbing down the product is not the answer; there are too many options. They must create a new and exciting product the informs, entertains, and challenges the user. Creating a newspaper that seems to be a shill for commerce is not the answer.

This is also true for the book publishing industry as well; they are lost in this brave new world. Independent publishers (which we are) are also trying to find our way, and a market. There is much to be excited about and frightened as well. The next few years will be exciting.

I apologize for the tardiness of this missive, we had a medical emergency a few days before Christmas and my thoughts have been elsewhere. I also have a better understanding of our health system, it has its challenges as well but I am very glad that it is there.

More later . . . .

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