The Newspaper Transition: A Personal View

As I write about and think about the economic crisis that the newspaper industry is in, I'm paying a lot of attention to my own personal transition from news consumption in print to online. I'm a long-time reader of The New York Times, and have had the print edition delivered to my apartment for years.

Until the advent of e-mail, waking up and grabbing the Times and flipping through it was pretty much the first thing I did every morning. But, like most of you, I now check my e-mail first. And more and more frequently, I now check the Times online, even before I grab the paper edition at my doorstep.

I check the Times during the day from work, and often on my Blackberry between meetings. Those articles I don't have time to read at home, I save for when I'm waiting for a bus or grabbing a sandwich for lunch.

Of course there's an entire generation of readers that hasn't ever (and won't ever) buy the print edition, but that's not my focus.

My main observation is that I think many of the Times most loyal readers (folks of my generation) are in a transition. They are not reading exclusively online, nor are they ready to give up the print edition. There's something about the print edition that gives me more — I skim articles in print that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to click on when reading the online version. In other words, I get a more broad news experience from the print edition than I get online — and that matters to me.

Having said that, I am increasingly frustrated that when I do get the print edition, I've already read at least half the articles online, or at least noticed them. Because the Times includes articles in the print edition that have already been online for 12 or more hours, this reinforces my notion that the print edition is dated — making it feel like I'm looking at some historical document, not the news, which is the whole point of a "news" paper!

There is no easy solution here for the Times. The issue is that the more people like me consume their news product online, the more the print edition seems old and tired. That's a big conundrum since we know that despite Marc Andreessen's suggestion that the Times simply shut down its printing presses (see my last blog post), if the Times did that, it they would be forced to lay off a huge part of its workforce, essentially cannibalizing its own product just to stay in business. Unlike the automobile industry, which can produce the same quality car but just fewer of them, you can't have the same quality Times with half the staff.

It seems to me that the Times (and by reference other print papers) ought to be pouring tons of research and development dollars into creating a viable solution. Who knows, maybe they are. If they would simply rethink the notion of print vs. online — and create two different news experiences, one for online and one for print — I might remain a print subscriber. Thus they would protect the print advertising revenue that drives their company.

I don't see that happening at the Times, nor anywhere else, and as a big fan of the Times I hope they figure it out soon, but somehow I suspect "creative destruction" will win the day. 

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One response to “The Newspaper Transition: A Personal View

  1. Hey Gene,
    Great post. I know what you mean about the paper being “dated” by the time you read it. Newspapers are no longer the best medium for “breaking news” — online or text is much faster. But what newspapers can continue to be really good at is analysis and explanation… pros and cons — how the item of discussion might affect the reader. Those type of stories take more time, but they don’t need to be breaking news. Consider this — what if you read the breaking news online in the morning, and then picked up the analysis of that news in the print edition in the afternoon? The content would be richer, more in-depth, and thought provoking, which breaking news usually isn’t. I’d want to see a clear separation between the two, but I’d actually read that — the online news would prep me to receive the analysis later.
    I feel that there were many choices made over the last few years that influenced where we are today, (I could say mistakes, but that’s easy to say in retrospect) including newspapers making the decision to offer their stories for free online, thinking that ad revenue online would work the same way as in print. And at the same time, classified printing dropped though the floor, taken over by online. Some papers are looking to go back to a paid online model (there is a paper on Long Island I believe?) and at least one major chain is looking at their own kindle-type device. Hopefully they will keep trying and something will stick — it would be a huge loss to lose the independent analysis that the press is trained to try to give.

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