What comes after newspapers (part one of…)
So, News Foo Camp. There’s been a lot of writing, as you’d expect for a conference full of news junkies; most of it linked in Alex Howard’s article on O’Reilly Radar, all of it excellent.

Still, after the conference, what do I feel? Anxious. A bit conflicted, really. Thinking hard about something Alex Hillman wrote:

I wasn’t in the room to know the context of this quote, but the most important word I see in it ISN’T courage, as some might expect. It’s just.

I spent the last 48 hours outside of my comfort zone being exposed to the current outcomes of those philosophies and values, and the sad reality is, that I don’t know how much longer those philosophies and values are going to be able to be sustained the way they are being funded.

In the same article, he quotes an off-the-cuff remark I made while we were chatting by the conference schedule:

…while journalism deserves a right to exist, the business of journalism doesn’t have that same right.

I regret that quip, a little, for two reasons. Firstly, it goes way too far: secondly, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. I love news and newspapers; a lot of my happiest memories as a kid are of reading my Mum’s paper, even though it was bigger than I was. As a teenager, it was the NME, and the one time I got my byline in there — writing some of the Cambridge student guide one year, of all things — meant, means, a hell of a lot to me. I love how newsprint feels and how it smells. Newspapers are fantastic.

But I rarely, if ever, buy one. Newspapers aren’t useful, or at least not as useful as other services. The centre cannot hold.

Too far and not far enough. Too far: no business has a right to exist if it can’t pay its way, however nostalgic it makes us. Not far enough: what is the business of journalism? Without defining that, it’s just an elegantly hollow turn of phrase. That’s what’s been bothering me since News Foo. What’s the social function of journalism? If newspapers die, what do we lose?

What’s really at stake here?

That’s an ethical and economic question. Ethical in a Reithian sense: the duty to educate, inform, entertain. That’s newspapers as a pillar of democracy, as the fifth estate. But, instead, to the Gradgrind school newspapers are nothing more than a bundle of facts and opinions wrapped up entertainingly and subsidised by advertising. They exist to make money for themselves, at least in theory, and they supply information to readers who can then use that information to make, or save, money.

Splitting the difference, and looking at this like a marketer, what are some of the benefits of reading a newspaper?

  • Directly actionable, useful information
  • Social context — making sure you don’t look like you just fell off the turnip truck
  • Entertainment
  • Tribal identity and political affirmation

Of course, different papers have emphasised different things. The FT and WSJ push economically-useful information so heavily that they’re virtually the financial trade press; the tabloids are about being entertaining, often through writing about entertainment, and that sports and entertainment news is in itself what you need to know to talk to your mates — assuming you’re in the paper’s core demographic.

Let’s look at those benefits again. Actionable information: Bloomberg (or, to declare my own interest, Timetric). Social context — Facebook or Twitter. Need something more specialised? Gawker Media will be happy to help: just name your niche. Entertainment: TMZ, Pitchfork, or to pick another Newsfoo delegate’s baby, the Cheezburger Network (which is "and finally" gone metastatic). Tribal identity: political blogs, sports blogs, forums and chatrooms. (And Facebook, again.)

None of the consumer benefits of newspapers are unique to newspapers anymore. For none of them is the newspaper the cheapest choice.

I believe that talking about “saving journalism” or “saving newspapers” is a category error. Newspapers don’t exist by themselves, so there’s nothing there to save; they’re a part of a much larger ecosystem of infotainment services, within which newspapers do a bundle of things adequately-to-well. That worked when there was no competition in the same niches, but now there are a bunch of services which do just one thing, but do it exceptionally well. What’s more, papers’ rivals aren’t saddled with newspapers’ cost structures or pricing policies. Bloomberg can charge $1500 per month per terminal and no-one blinks, because the information’s worth more that to the person buying. At the other extreme, Demand Media can arbitrage AdWords and AdSense and trim its content costs to fit.

In that spirit, “saving newspapers” is confusing means with ends. Our problem isn’t saving newspapers. It’s protecting the social mission that journalists have taken on, and saving (or creating) jobs for the people, including journalists, who work in newspaper companies. The papers, as they exist now, are a distraction!

Take, as an example, the Postcode Paper. It was printed by a startup called Newspaper Club. They let you print your own newspapers; taking a newspaper company and throwing away everything but the printing operation: taking a chunk of a vertically integrated news organisation and making it a platform. This shows that you can back out the printing operation from a newspaper and get something interesting. What about the reverse — if you took a newspaper company and threw the newspaper away entirely?

Newspaper companies have strong brands, talented staffs, huge customer loyalty (even now), excellent link equity. Startups would kill for those assets. But while these businesses continue to think of themselves as newspaper companies, they’re tying themselves to a model which no longer looks fixable.

That’s what I want to dig into and what I’m planning to write more about for the next few weeks. I’d love it if you joined me.

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