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This is why your newspaper is dying (bradcolbow.com)
219 points by rmason on July 27, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments



Traditionally, the newspaper business was about delivering unique information quicker than other newspapers (or, in the case of local newspapers, delivering unique information that wasn't available elsewhere). Newspapers are dying because in an environment where instantaneous content delivery is done at essentially zero cost, fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for undifferentiated content. The author is confusing cause and effect - circumventing popup blockers and failing to invest into content formatting is most definitely the effect, not the cause.

Publications that have differentiated content (e.g. Wall Street Journal, NYT, Economist) seem to be doing just fine, but having thousands of papers that rehash the same content without any edge on each other whatsoever is just not sustainable given the current state of information technology.

EDIT: I only considered revenue from the subscribers, and ignored downward pressure on advertising revenue. The point still stands - the market can no longer sustain undifferentiated content (people don't pay for it anymore, and advertisers will pay less than before because they have better options), and differentiated content is probably a worse business than it used to be (people will pay for it, but the revenue from advertisers is still being diverted to Google).


subscriber revenue only accounts for 15-25% of total revenues...

i definitely agree that bland, undifferentiated content is killing the newspapers. what happens when revenues are down? fire the newsroom, get content from AP.

unfortunately, i am the one who is to blame for all the share buttons.


What happens when revenues are down? fire the newsroom, get content from AP. So true, It reminds me of:

"Cutting funding for bike lanes because there isn't enough demand is like cutting literacy funding because not enough people are reading. Bike lanes are not built to satisfy demand. They're meant to serve as an incentive to encourage more cycling by increasing safety." -- Dave Meslin


subscriber revenue only accounts for 15-25% of total revenues

Ah, that's incredible, I didn't know that. I think it's really easy to connect the dots here. Since news is a commodity and global distribution is cheap, journalism becomes a business of extremes, much like books and startups. A tiny percentage of journalists who are really good at writing will be in huge demand, while the overwhelming majority will barely be able to sell anything. If you couple that with downward pressure on advertising prices, local papers cannot be "saved" - there's just not enough revenue for them in the market to sustain them at all. I don't think the total market size is shrinking, just that small newspapers can't effectively compete.

That means a few big brands will emerge and take the lion's share of the revenue. Or perhaps even one brand that will take everything, "the facebook (or paypal) of news". It was supposed to be Digg, but I guess not...


I suspect that the vacuum left behind by dead local newspapers will be filled by local blogs. I haven't researched this but I wonder if the markets that lost their local paper if blogs have made up the loss. Knoxville, TN has to really nice local blogs even though we have both an alternative weekly (Metropulse) and a paper.

* http://knoxify.com/ * http://www.notawigshop.com/


If you do research it, I'd appreciate it if you'd write up a guide to finding good local blogs and submit it to HN. I don't know of any in my area, and aside from googling my city name, I can't think of many ways to find them.


Here's an idea - give subscribers the news first (and use obfuscation to prevent re-posts), then open it up to everyone else some time later.


Thanks for linking to my little comic strip. I've never been to this site before but I'm really impressed with the intelligent discussion going on here, I'll definitely be back.

The main point I set out to make is it's not just about driving traffic to sell ads but something more near and dear to my heart, user experience. If you put pageviews above building loyalty among your base what you're doing is selling out long term reader loyalty for short term gain. The New York times is a great example of a site that has chosen to adopt the web as its own medium and because of that its paywall is actually working. (or at least the paper as a whole is profitable, maybe someone can provide me with more details about the paywall's profitability). The NYTimes has built a unique and recognizable brand built on quality.

All the tactics I outlined in the comic point to one thing: They care more about page views than the actual human reading the site. It's true most people will not pay for news because it's a commodity but I think there is a large number of people who would pay for news, myself included.

This is true in any industry. Look at Starbucks, look at Apple. They are selling product for 4 times more than their competitors yet people buy them. Why? It's all about the user's experience, they are buying more than just something that works.

In they end your customers will treat you the way you treat them. If you're going for cheap traffic it means you care more about churning out content than building brand loyalty and you will always be chasing short term traffic instead of a long term community that be loyal to your paper. These guys are hurting online because they have failed to build long term loyalty which their print counterparts have (or had).

-Brad Colbow


Welcome to HN. I hope you'll like it here.

By the way, you don't need to sign your posts. Your username appears above it anyway.


This is a red herring. The New York Times is "dying" too, but (other than not linking outside the site, which is of debatable consequence to site revenue), it doesn't do any of these things.

This is mainly a list of one person's pet peeves, asserted to be the reason that newspapers are hurting. I have another theory: the advertising market for newsprint is being decimated. The pop-unders and massive ads are probably the only thing keeping your local newspaper alive.


Just wanted to point out that with the recent New York Times second-quarter results, the growing consensus is that the NYT has turned a corner: http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2011/07/26/the-nyt-pay...

I don't think it's fair to say that the NYT is "dying" at this point. Here's how New York Magazine put it just this week:

"It will take years for the ultimate wisdom of the Times’ strategy to be apparent, but the company’s second-quarter-earnings report proves that its digital-subscription plan has thus far been an enormous success. The internal projections have been closely held, but several people have confirmed that the goal was to amass 300,000 online subscribers within a year of launch. On Thursday, the company announced that after just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website. Combined with the 57,000 Kindle and Nook readers who were paying for subscriptions and the roughly 100,000 users whose digital access was sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln division, that meant the paper had monetized close to 400,000 online users. (Another 756,000 print subscribers have registered their accounts on the Times’ website.)"

"With the exception of websites charging for sports statistics, financial data, and porn, that makes nytimes.com one of the very few content providers that is monetizing its users"

http://nymag.com/print/?/news/media/new-york-times-2011-8/


Author has added a note. NYTimes has linked to the external sites but it was Denver post which republished the article who removed the links.

"Quick note: The first panel is taken from the Denver Post, not the New York Times. I didn’t notice the byline in there. The story’s author actually does a very good job of linking out to other sites"

Denver Post - http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_18451993

NYTimes - http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/technology/personaltech/bo...


To be clear, The Denver Post didn't remove the links -- we never had the links in the first place.


The NYTimes is actually profitable again.


That's not what their 2nd quarter earnings report [1] said. They had an operating loss of $114 million. They took a special write down of $161 million for goodwill, but the revenues had decreased 2 percent. They predicted an improved 3rd quarter, but until it comes to fruition I think it's too early to say that they've turned the corner.

[1] http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=105317&p=iro...


New York Magazine looked at the same stuff and saw hope:

http://nymag.com/news/media/new-york-times-2011-8/


(other than not linking outside the site, which is of debatable consequence to site revenue)

It may not directly increase their bottom line, but linking to sources increases access to information and allows the public to get more informed and more knowledgable. Many newspapers say this is one of their goals.


The Times of London is behind a paywall and doing everything right, but still can't pay the bills. Producing quality news content is expensive and people seem largely unwilling to pay for it.

The newspapers that seem to be hanging on all appear to be cost-cutting like mad, moving from reportage to opinion and chasing the lowest common denominator.

The most successful news website in the UK (and second in the world behind the NYT) is The Daily Mail. Their web content is completely different to their print content. Offline, they're a populist rag specialising in paranoid scare stories about gypsies, muslims and cancer. Online, they rely heavily on linkbaity celebrity gossip and pictures of Pippa Middleton's arse. They've worked out that what drives traffic is different to what sells papers. "Quality" is the least important aspect of a news operation, at least in terms of profit.


It's not just subscriber revenue. As others have pointed out, for most newspapers subscriptions were/are a minority of revenue.

The fall of newspapers is actually a perfect storm: classifieds (something like 40% of revenues, historically) have been gutted by sites like craigslist, and CPM rates for print have been on the decline because the internet has essentially infinite inventory. In the web world, we think a few dollars' CPM is pretty decent, but the newspaper industry is built around the assumption of much higher rates (i.e. in the tens or hundreds of dollars per thousand "impressions"). You can't build a strong local newspaper with paid reporters, investigative journalism, etc., on a $2 CPM. The market is too small.


You left out another element of the storm: the bread and butter newspaper ad clients were: real estate, finance, auto sales, and national retailers. Guess which industries have cut back drastically on marketing during the recession.


"Producing quality news content is expensive and people seem largely unwilling to pay for it."

I'm not sure how to precisely formulate this, but it seems to me that an ironic effect of our ever-increasing command over automation, manufacturing, and production, and all the other things that used to take humans but now are done automatically far cheaper, is that in relative terms an hour of human time has become ever more expensive, even as we theoretically have many more of them since we have more people and need fewer people to support them. You can see that in things like how expensive a maid service is in an industrialized country vs. less industrialized ones relative to the average local wealth level.

"Real" news collection isn't really something that can be automated, though. It can be assisted with databases and content management software, but the hard work of digging through facts, correlating them, doing interviews, background checks, and all the other stuff necessary for a really good story isn't getting easier any time soon.

I'm really at a loss as to how this can be made economical in the modern environment, even in theory.


> "Producing quality news content is expensive and people seem largely unwilling to pay for it."

Most news organizations produce news content for average people, for whom "the news" has little practical day-to-day value. Thus, their "users" are generally unwilling to pay for the content (and are therefore sold to advertisers as products). STRATFOR [0] takes the approach of producing very high quality news content that is of legitimate value to businesses, who are willing to pay decent money for that level of insight. (I don't know if they're doing well financially, just putting them out there because of their different approach.)

Patio11 is fond of pointing out that you should target the right customers, and avoid the pathological ones. This seems to me like a good example -- target the businesses that actually need to know about geopolitical shifts in Indonesia, rather than the average Joe who finds it interesting but not impactful.

[0] http://www.stratfor.com/ -- "Strategic Forecasting"


Only thing missing in this is the local newspapers lacking local news point. I honestly don't read the St Paul Pioneer Press for reviews on the iPad - there are much more relevant places for me that information from more intelligent sources. I read the local paper to know what's happening locally.

Can you imagine a newspaper without any AP stories in it? So clean. So relevant. So free of redundancy from the kind of information I already digested 12 hours earlier... Excuse me while I go get a scissors and get to work.


Except that producing your own stories is more expensive (unless you want to hire middle schoolers), and you need something to put in the space between the advertisements. I agree that a newspaper that actually fills its niche well is desirable, but it's unfortunately a tough business model.

Frankly, I kind of suspect that local news will eventually be dominated by passionate bloggers. They don't have the overhead that a newspaper does, so they can deal with smaller budgets. Every community in my area has at least one local blog, and honestly, they're great for local news.


If the kind of local news you enjoy is event coverage then yeah, local bloggers are great. Uncovering government corruption? Not so much.


I imagine there must be some interesting business models (or sustainable non-profit model) for harnessing local bloggers and print media. I follow an awesome local blog about my city government. The blogger is SUPER passionate and documents all the local issues and city council meetings. My local newspapers cover few of these local issues, issues that problem more directly affect people than the national crisis of the week. Fortunately, a local paper hired (?) the blogger to write (or syndicate) her content for their paper (dead tree and website).


I know of an example. In East Texas, a local "Who's who" type of magazine completely dominates the slowly failing local newspaper, and it only runs once a month. All the content is unique to the region, and the people here love it (enabling the magazine to charge a ton for advertising)


Newspapers are dying because it's expensive to produce content, there's serious downward pricing pressure on advertising, and they've had a really hard time getting their traditional small print advertisers to buy online ads. It's not even a given that an equilibrium price in online ads is enough to pay for content. Assuming a given article gets a $10/cpm and costs $100 to produce, they need 10,000 impressions to break even. It's crazy.

These things lead directly to the quality issues you're seeing. It's difficult to justify high end online content presentation when you can hardly afford to keep writers around. How many newspapers can really compete for engineering talent when there are sexier, better paying jobs at not-a-newspaper, inc?


This is really only the beginning of a list. Most newspapers don't realize it yet but its getting pointless for them to even publish national and world news.

Most twenty somethings i know never read the newspaper. Yet as they buy houses and have kids they develop an intense interest in local news about their community. The company that gets local right will be the new Hearst of this era. I am pretty sure it won't be one of the giants like Gannett.

Right now I learn as much local news on Twitter as I do the local daily newspaper I read every morning.


Where I live, Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, we have an excellent hyper-local blog called MyBallard.com. It's a great resource for news that I actually care about but isn't at all interesting to people outside the neighborhood. The company behind it has developed blogs for many other neighborhoods and seems to be reasonably successful at it.


http://forargyll.com/ is a brilliant example of this--they were originally a group set up to launch a community radio station for a remote part of Scotland. This was unsuccessful for a variety of (mainly technical) reasons, so they turned to the web instead.

Now they produce a daily-updated, hyper-local blog covering a huge, sparsely populated area. It's full of pics of local people, debate on local issues and news not covered elsewhere. (People will buy a paper, or read a blog, if you print a picture of someone they know. Why do you think local papers print pages and pages of kids who are starting school every September?)

This is an area that didn't have a local press to speak of before. There was one weekly local newspaper, but nothing on this scale enabling people who might be 50 or 100 miles apart discuss shared issues instantly.


That's a cool example. I was thinking that hyper-local really only made sense for densely packed urban environments. Good to see that I was wrong in that assumption.


No.

Your newspaper dying is why this is.


A major problem is that print editions have a comparatively high production and distribution cost, but newspapers can charge more for advertising. As readers shift to online editions, the distribution cost is minimal, but the savings are dwarfed by the loss of advertising revenue, since internet ads cost much less. Of course, they try to counter this by peppering the pages with ads, which leads to about half the problems that this piece describes.


Why is it that a critique of newspapers in which the very first criticism is about not linking to source material fails itself to link to the papers which it rips on?

Actually I don't want a link to the actual live offense, but a link to a full screenshot of the entire visible page seems to be warranted. Because I'd like to see a) the context of these screwups (in the first panel, is it actual content produced by the paper, or wire material in which re-editing presents other logistical obstacles?) and b) I want to know what paper made the alleged screwup. Because if the article has a nice link bait headline slamming the entirety of the news industry, yet uses examples from the Podunk Gazette and similarly sized papers, that's also worth knowing.


While the comic raises some nice points (mainly cheap shots), the final line: "I would happily pay for news that doesn't treat me like an imbecile" (or words to that effect) sounds like hogwash to me.

The NYTimes, Economist, and New Yorker (for example) all provide excellent news through all kinds of channels, and in many cases with most, if not all, of the points addressed. All the crap the cartoonist complains about is purely driven by the need of newspapers to replace lost revenue, and there's no evidence that most readers are willing to pay.


"Linking to a random story in the middle of an article"

Thank God I'm not the only one that sees this as nonsensical and annoying. Who first came up with it, and where do they live? I've got to return all the crap they threw at me; I certainly don't want it.


You might as well just take out "newspaper" and put (arbitrary old model content industry)

The examples cited are endemic problems in leadership, organization and focus. I worked in newspaper for 6 years, then the music business for 6. There are really smart people in both industries, most of whom have left or are leaving because at the top, the motivation is to bolster justification for existence rather than innovate.

Its often easier, and more profitable to let the ship sink. Sad as that is.

Of note, some of my former colleagues at the paper have done interesting things, like Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineLand


It may not be the reason why newspapers are dying, but it is one of the reasons very few people pity them: in 20 years, there hasn't been one serious effort by a newspaper to create an attractive, pleasant and useful online experience people might actually want to pay for.

The readers needs are way down the order or priorities, yet the readers paying for content directly is the only halfway viable business model. It may not be enough, but they could at least once have tried a strategy that puts the readers first.


I've seen a few decent attempts at this. Particularly the Guardian [1].

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/


The WSJ has long been taking in subscription fees.


Sorry guys, but the death of the newspaper is largely due to the freefall in advertising revenues, rather than a list of webdev pet peeves.


No, Craigslist is why your newspaper is dying, Craigslist and all the other on-line advertising


This is why I gladly pay for my online subscription to the Financial Times. It's a high quality newspaper and the website is actually relatively pleasant to deal with.


Isn't SEO the reason they don't link in the body of their content? I recall reading that Engadget only links to itself for this reason a while back.


Wish there was a foursquare for news papers?

I was a long time free subscriber of nytimes.com but now after the pay wall I switched to wsj.com because it clearly states the articles that are locked (removes guessing).


I don't think this is it --> http://i.imgur.com/y7qWP.png


While these things are annoying, the death of newspapers is down to economics.

Most folk don't realise that the cover price of a newspaper doesn't even pay for the whole cost of printing.

http://clubtroppo.com.au/2009/06/02/whats-killing-the-newspa...


really? critiquing websites via text presented in comic sans in one huge image?

this is why your blog is IMAGE NOT FOUND


Has anyone tried to read SFGate, the online division of the SF Chronicle?

The stories are good enough -- the comments are a trash heap and a den of cluelessness, and this has been the case for years. The editors have done nothing to curb the nastiness, which even Chron bloggers themselves have complained about.[0] The least they could do is post the geographical region the commenters post from, as it really surprises me to think that there is so much negativity in SF. I don't even need to entertain the idea of them using the FB comments plugin.

My point in bringing this up is to add another data point to the "newspaper editors are clueless about how to run a website" narrative. But it also corroborates the idea that these websites are such messes because of their extreme financial situation -- the trainwreck comment sections are also an attraction, in that they are frequently so outrageous and inflammatory that people feel compelled to respond, and somehow that equals dollars.

Personally, the spinelessness of the SFGate editors has turned me off to ever giving them a penny. I've gone from reading it daily to only occasionally reading articles which are forwarded to me, and then, resisting reading the comments.

[0] http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/cwnevius/detail?entry_id...


The local press here in the UK seems to attract the same sort of vitriol - there was a fairly humdrum story in my local paper the other day about nuisance pigeons in the town centre being culled. It took about twenty minutes for the first comment to appear suggesting the local unemployed and immigrants instead be culled. More seriously, a friend of a friend died during a cycle race a few weeks ago, and it didn't take long for messages to appear saying it was his own fault for taking part.

I'm sure this is great entertainment for the five or ten people who sit on the internet every day, waiting for stories to be published and then posting their spiteful right-wing rants. But for the vast majority of readers, the thousands who visit to look at the news and click on the ads, it's highly likely that the unpleasant messages are offputting, are a blot on the good reputation of the paper and discourage them from visiting again. I visit the sites to read the news, as written by skilled, qualified journalists. I don't visit to read the unmoderated opinions of "BigMan69" in "Britainistan."

I run a tight ship on the local public radio station site I'm in charge of, which publishes local news stories daily--I encourage people to leave their real name if it's at all possible, and anonymous hateful rants are swiftly removed. Station staff also regularly engage in the comment discussions, which seems to help people self-moderate. If they can see that they're being read and responded to by the people writing the stories, they aren't as likely to go off on rants.


Back before the intertubes in a different world, they would have been the ones sending in letters to the editor written in purple ink and ALL IN BLOCK CAPITALS. On pages ripped from a shorthand pad.

Nice clean clear Web site you have there.


I don't think these newspapers realize that it makes the reader feel like he's associating with such scummy people. If you read the NY Post online, it seems like all the comments are from the worst kind of racists. Not a place I want to hang out.


Your newspaper is dying because it can't connect to its database?


I don't know what the hell that site is doing, but even when fully loaded, my Android phone can't pan around it because its CPU is having a heart attack




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