It’s been 20 years since we were first promised the slow, painful death of the newspaper, and while we’ve definitely seen an unfortunate slew of casualties, what we’ve mostly seen is an entire industry’s attempt to pivot its way back to a state of relevancy and profitability. It hasn’t been easy. The internet grants its users a sense of freedom, and the subscription and ad-based revenue model of print hasn’t translated to the digital environment. Regardless, newspaper executives have been slow to innovate in the right way.
Starting with the Boston Globe in 1996, nearly every major newspaper now produces an online version of its publication — with the majority of revenue *still* reliant on the print edition. This is like a fisherman making a living only by selling the footwear he or she catches. Not sustainable. This week, Heidi Groover at The Stranger reported that The Seattle Times has asked its staff to brace themselves for “significant staff reductions,” citing ever-decreasing advertisement revenue — even though their subscription rate is up. This is just another example of growth not being synonymous with profitability.
How can a news organization make money producing quality content? By embracing the strengths and potential of digital media. It is never too late!
This summer on the Media Monday section of our Fearey blog, we featured John Cook, co-founder of GeekWire, a local tech-focused news website. A seasoned journalist, John pivoted from the print news industry and into a new business. I caught up with him just prior to our blog post to gain a fuller picture into how he did it and to see how his media business is doing. He talked about the challenges of growing a news startup and the creative ways they’ve worked to meet them. He was very optimistic about the future of his media business but he was rather sad to hear how his friends and colleagues at The Seattle Times are doing. He predicts even more layoffs. And so here we are. At Geekwire, his profits are growing and they have been on a notable hiring spree. They have expanded far beyond the typical pay-for-space advertising model to include custom underwriting sponsorships where companies can pay for expanded coverage of specific beats. You can basically buy a beat, although they claim to maintain a complete church and state philosophy. This is not new. National Public Radio has been doing this for years. More sponsorships equals more revenue equals more news. Geekwire has a staff that focuses on digital news. One hundred percent of their brain power goes to improving what they do online. But at the Times, that is just the opposite. Traditional newspapers need to make the switch. They needed to do it two decades ago.
Thinking outside the column.
Current technology gives us endless possibilities beyond simply moving words from paper to screen. News organizations have more tools than ever to create an experience worth paying for. The New York Times has done a fantastic job exploring the possibilities of an enhanced news experience beyond the written word. With immersive UX and non-traditional delivery formats including virtual reality and multimedia, they have given their customers a reason to subscribe to their online content. That they accomplish this while preserving the traditional print-style masthead layout of their homepage is the perfect example of a venerable paper embracing the future.
Newspapers may be dying but the news is very much alive. I hope The Seattle Times can find its sea legs soon and keep the quality for which it’s known. With so much noise online, we need all the good news we can get.