The Great Compromise, and why it's killing newspapers

The questions puzzle anyone who watches the news industry -- Why didn't newspapers adapt years ago, when resources were plentiful, to remodel themselves for the online era of news? Why aren't they changing more aggressively now? Do they just not get it?

Well, some people in the industry don't "get it," but a lot of them do. (A study coming on or about May 12 from the Media Management Center will show that 43% of newsroom staffers say their digital conversion should move faster; only 7% think it's moving too fast) A lot of them really understand the underpinnings and implications of the "link economy", social networks and other emerging trends. Why, then, are their institutions still struggling to live up to its demands?

The answer: It's REALLY difficult to have any one institution, one group of workers, divide their focus between two radically different models and succeed at both. Specifically, it's really difficult to produce a great newspaper and a great community web site at the same time. They demand fundamentally different things and force choices that slight one medium or the other.

In short, newspapers are doing the splits as they try to keep one foot in each of two diverging worlds. (That forthcoming MMC survey shows 31% of newsroom effort is devoted to digital products, and that staffers on average think their jobs should be about 50/50 web and print). I see this quite clearly as someone simultaneously responsible for putting out the local print edition news every day and for directing online content and news strategy. Here are some examples of key contradictions:

• Production and planning. A lot goes on behind the scenes at a daily news organization. The major meeting of the day comes in late afternoon to plan what stories go on what print pages for the next day. In a web-centered newsroom, you might have that meeting at 6 am to be on top of the morning traffic peak. Tough choice: schedule your day and planning around the 24-hour web cycle or the daily morning print cycle? You can't really do both (unless you just meet all day, which is even worse).

• Staff specialties. A web-centered newsroom would have a team of web developers working constantly on special projects and beta experiments. In reality, most newsrooms are lucky to have one or two people capable of this, and even then they may not be given the time or freedom to innovate. Tough choice: spend salary on a print copy editor or a web developer. You can't do both.

• Writing style and content focus. Most newspaper-based news organizations are still writing "newspaper stories" and posting them online. It's what they know. A web-focused organization, however, would rarely write a single long block of words to tell a story. We would focus on shorter, conversational-style, blog-like entries -- heavy on links and embedded media. Tough choice: write for a print style audience or a web community. You can't really do both well.

I could go on, but those are some common examples. Most of you, like me, would choose the "web answer" to each of the dilemmas above. After all, we "get it," right? But it's impossible for any newspaper-legacy organization at this point to follow those instincts purely, mostly because revenue is still 90% print, 10 % online. You just can't ignore the money (and if you can, bet your publisher will pull you back to reality).

And so, newspaper folks like me who "get it," still continue the Great Compromise of straddling print and online with dwindling resources and staff -- doing neither as excellently as we would like.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like to see someone thinking about compromise rather than the usual rants of traditional vs. online news media, even with the great challenges you list.
However, more is killing newspapers than the Web. The business model is antiquated on many levels, and the death spiral started before even a few people turned to the Web for news.
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