Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Future of Newspapers

In today's Washington Post, Michael Kinsley has an entertaining analysis of what plagues the newspaper industry, which he says is a victim of inefficient production and distribution procedures and a product not tailored to customer's desires. I thought this description of a reader's interaction with a newspaper was particularly accurate:
The proud owner of up to four or five pounds of paper and ink begins searching for the parts he or she wants... [A]t last, there are two piles of paper: a short one of stuff to read, and a tall one of stuff to throw away. Unfortunately, many people are taking the logic of this process one step further. Instead of buying a paper in order to throw most of it away, they are not buying it in the first place.

One of the big reasons for the newspapers' decline is the convenience of the Internet; in order to compete, Kinsley says, "they will have to bring it to me in bed." In bringing up a list of advantages newspapers have, he cites the "brand name" authority that newspapers possess, though he wonders whether that still carries the same weight it once did.

What Kinsley only barely alludes to, however, is "content". What I think is the newspapers' greatest strength are the resources they possess to cover all manner of events, be they domestic or international. A lot of old suits might be worried about the Internet and bloggers, but a blogger primarily fills the role of an opinion columnist. No one popular blog site does much if any independent reporting, and certainly could never dream of having the scope of even a mid-size newspaper.

Newspapers will survive, but to thrive, they're going to have to change their business model. Kinsley has an intriguing solution. He points out that what customers pay for a newspaper doesn't come close to covering its production cost--it is only through the money reaped from advertising that the paper covers its costs and turns a profit. I find this somewhat analogous to movie theaters, which don't make much money off ticket sales--despite their exorbitant prices these days--but rather through the concession stands. (That explains the $5 Coke and $6 bucket of popcorn.)

So, Kinsley says, why not offers newspapers for free? If advertisers go along with this, agreeing to pay more in exchange for more eyeballs, everyone wins. I don't know how feasible this idea is, but it certainly seems worth investigating. If there's one thing everybody likes, it's free stuff. Were newspapers to be offered for free, I'm certain many more people would be interested in reading them without feeling like they were wasting money on an "unnecessary" expense.

It's not something that's never been done. Those of you living in the MD-DC-VA area may have seen copies of The Examiner, a free daily paper, lying around. Yet something like this will never catch on unless a heavyweight latches on--the "brand name" authority that Kinsley talks about. For now, papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal seem content to charge $1 a day (and the Sunday edition of the Times is a whopping $4), so for those of us looking to catch a break, it's just wishful thinking.

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