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Discussing the Future of Newspapers

Posted by: Jon Fine on December 29, 2005

It’s almost always a mistake when a columnist—that is, someone who types opinions for a living—dares to get into prescriptives for running a business.

Nevertheless: This week’s column contains prescriptives for what moves might help save the daily newspaper, and how it may be reinvented for this century.

It’s true that, on a certain level, the American daily newspaper doesn’t need saving. Virtually all of them are still bang-up businesses that spew torrents of cash; most newspaper companies post profit margins almost any other business would cut off a finger to achieve. But it’s the future that people are worried about, and there’s a litany of negative trends making themselves apparent. Some leading indicators are plainly worrisome. The first cities in the US that the free daily Metro chain appeared in? Boston and Philadelphia. Coincidentally or not, the papers in those cities are tanking worse than they have in the past, and worse than comparable cities.

I’ve weighed in. (So have others, like the ubiquitous Jeff Jarvis via his “new news” posts.) Will you?

Some notes:

1. Assume there will be a paper product we know as the daily paper for the near future and scale your suggestions accordingly—or explain why the paper product will disappear very quickly.

2. In the real world, changing ways at some newspapers require grappling with complex union issues. For the purposes of your brainstorming, don’t get hung up on this point.

3. For reasons of space and focus, I didn’t touch on seriously squeezing production and distribution costs, which any rethinking of the newspaper will have to address. Any smart thoughts on how to slash either are greatly welcomed.

4. As my column shows, I’m not kneejerk about the sanctity of newsroom jobs. If you’re planning to slam any suggestion newsrooms might need to be smaller, think carefully about how you justify it in business and revenue terms.

5. Think big. And have fun.

Reader Comments

Richard Gibson

December 29, 2005 8:38 PM

Interesting post John.

As a UK reader I am suprised to learn that Metro, which started in London is also in US. It's huge here, although content wise I have never understood why.

Here, it seemed for a short while at least every title at the weekend carried a cover mounted DVD to boost circulations. Also a recent trend has seen smaller sizes which has also helped boost circulation.

Niti Bhan

December 30, 2005 6:27 AM

Thanks for this insightful post. Just adding my two rupees to your discussion on the future of American newspapers, one additional observation, they are also changing their focus towards increasingly providing local/metro coverage, almost news sheet style, stuff that may be more difficult to capture , collate and find online. This shift in their relevance to an increasingly interconnected world will also be reflected in a corresponding shift in their readership demographics, or not. Imho, seems to be that their role is more and more just a vehicle for local department store sale advertising.

With reference to this snippet from Yale Global,

American media coverage of foreign affairs has also been diminishing. For example, according to a 2004 Columbia University survey, the presence of foreign news stories in American newspapers has been dropping since the late 1980s. In 1987, overseas news accounted for about 27 percent of front page stories in American newspapers – about the same as a decade earlier. By 2003, foreign news accounted for just 21 percent of front page stories, while coverage of domestic affairs more than doubled over the same period. On television, both the number of American network news bureaus overseas and the amount of air-time spent on foreign news fell by half in the 1990s.

I can see the difference, here in Singapore and in India, just a couple of weeks ago, in the volume, scope and variety of news coverage

Niti Bhan

December 30, 2005 6:29 AM

Ps, one had to dig for your column, the link in the blog post is incomplete.


December 30, 2005 11:59 AM

Nothing will ever replace good reporting and compelling stories that relate to the paper's audience, no matter how those stories are delivered. (I remember a time when delivering newspapers on disks was discussed, pre-Internet - can you imagine?)

I think the key for newspapers is simply refocusing on their core mission of reporting and telling stories that people care about - no matter how they're told (e.g. online, in the paper, in a magazine or weekly insert) - and, above all, continuing to have an impact on their communities.

When you think about it, in the blogosphere and online content, what is happening is fewer people are being engaged more effectively. The value of those participants, then, is far greater because they're more invested - microcontent, if you will. Newspapers, I think, need to re-think how they value themselves to advertisers - perhaps circulation numbers are no longer the appropriate metric. This is illustrated in a study this week that has circulated on the blogs It shows how in smaller markets the newspaper is still the leading source for information - not CNN, or blogs, or podcasts. Local news readership, it seems, remains engaged. Perhaps there's insight there, as well.

I would love to see the respected associations in the newspaper industry come together in a summit and devise new industry standards, rethinking those metrics for success, the same way the mobile marketing and content industry and online advertising has done. It would be challenging to implement, but I think that's the sort of leadership that is required.

David Hunziker Bay Head NJ

December 30, 2005 7:54 PM

Small daily newspapers, with circulations of 150,000 to 300,000 have real challanges ahead. As an ad agency that has placed print media for over 30 years, we have seen the shift of thinking with even our small clients. New Jersey Newspapers like the Asbury Park Press (Gannett)and The Star Ledger(Newhouse)continue to raise their rates and yet their circulation are declining and have been for the past few years. Their sales reps continue to get beat up for not making their goals. Smaller hometown newspapers are eating their lunch, not to mention the rapid rise in Internet banner advertising and e-mail blasts. Mr. Fine might not have all the answers but I commend him for voicing his ideas. Upper management in some of these publication might take note. Older traditional newspaper presentaions aren't attracting the younger more mobile audience. Newspapers won't go away, but it will take innovative thinking to get back their lost readers.

Robert Rynerson

January 2, 2006 2:51 AM

Each time someone thinks that they have achieved a monopoly, someone comes in under them and develops a rival. Quite often they do so by catering to a market that was held by one of the companies squeezed out or bought out by the monopoly. This dawned on me when I became a Honda owner and then discovered how many of us or our fathers were Studebaker owners.

It was not long ago that metro areas offered a variety of slants in their daily newspapers. When I was an Oregon Journal carrier (afternoon daily, independent - "She Flies With Her Own Wings") technical limitations prevented carrying more than the top 20 NY stocks, but the business section had a lot of news about the Port of Portland, shipping, railroads, lumber, etc., which was how we Portlanders made our money in those days.

To paraphrase my father, who is a lifelong street circulation man, a good newspaper is one that makes people who didn't read it feel sorry that they missed the story. The person who did read it has an edge over them. That still applies, so if large dailies write off niche audiences, then they will be in the same position as the U.S. auto industry.

The big dailies probably are "better" in terms of journalism school standards, but do people wait on the porch to see what is in them? They will if they think the stories are important to them.

[I should note that I live in a rare market, Denver, where both dailies have taken steps such as sending their own staff to cover foreign stories relevant to local readers. On the other hand, the use of identical wire services leaves readers little choice for routine foreign coverage. And the AP's role in selling its news around the world results in American readers seeing articles from the American wire service that refer to Americans in the third person.]

Greg Linden

January 2, 2006 11:25 AM

One thing that was missing from your recommendations is the idea of a "Daily Me", Nicholas Negroponte's vision of a virtual daily newspaper customized for the individual tastes.

Especially with online newspapers, there is an opportunity to emphasize different articles to different people, surfacing interesting information on the front page that otherwise would be buried so deep it likely never would be read.

Marcelo Salup

January 2, 2006 1:50 PM

Interesting series of points. I would add two key ones, if papers are really going to hold their own against the web and television/cable:
#1 - Offer a "national" buy, an especially practical move outside of the US, where geography helps.
#2 - Create the equivalent of daily ratings. It is not surprising that most growing media are measured daily (or in minutes): Television, radio, web, out of home (in some markets). By holding on to the "venerable" and "traditional" yearly or monthly statements and quaint concepts like "base rates" print media has virtually assured itself a place at the bottom of the totem pole. If all other media is measured daily or weekly... print needs to be measured daily or weekly.


January 3, 2006 9:20 AM

Hey John,
That was an interesting column you did on newspapers, particularly suggesting that some consider cutting back on their sources of foreign news.
Amazing you'd think that reducing the number of independent sources of foreign news would be a worthwhile thing to do. Like suggesting that McDonalds cut back to just hamburgers.
That's the LAST thing Americans need their newspapers to do, cut back on sources of foreign news.
It is interesting to note as well that Knight Ridder, now possibly up for sale, has fielded some of the most aggressive reporters on US foreign policy stories. Be a shame to lose that, but I bet we do when they are merged into some larger entity, which then decides to reduce their foreign news sources.
By the way, the link to your column on this Businessweek site brings up some other column by some other guy entirely. FYI

Mark Edmiston

January 3, 2006 10:50 AM

Most metro dailies' business model is some version of total market converage, delivering the lowest common denonminator news to scooop up as many readers as possible. Does anyone think that is viable anymore? If so, look at the other total market coverage medium, network TV. It is losing viewers even faster than the newspapers are losing paying readers.

Newspapers need to segment. Readers don't require excellence on every page but "offend as few as possible" editorial is not compellng. The solution cannot be "if no one is paying let's give it away". The solution must be to provide information that people will pay for. Since not everyone is interested to the same degree in every subject, identify who is interested and serve them a product that meets their information needs. All sports; all business; all fashion; political, foreign news; etc. etc. Out of the same newsroom.

General advertising can be sold across all of the titles while each will garner new additional advertising that is targeted to the characterisitics of the reader.

Terry Maxwell

January 3, 2006 12:30 PM

Your 1/9 column was so 'newspaperish' in it's outlook. Why not think of the daily paper as the tip of an iceberg--link back to prior articles; spread out to reader analysis, comment, and contributions; and use the opinion section as a magazine-style summarization both of the historical record and the current commentary. Also long-tail the current story outward beyond its immediate predecessors to linkages that give the reader a good understanding of the field.

Tom Bascom

January 4, 2006 12:39 PM

I think it is all about the bundling. Bundling with affinity, in a way that gets users the whole picture by bringing many sources/perspectives/related information to bear in the same view. It satisifies users that they have considered all sources, speeds their "time to satisfaction" and builds a better internet. See a wordier discussion at information.htm

Karl Slatner

January 5, 2006 9:57 AM

If your daily newspaper is like mine, there is nothing to read on the front page at 6:30 A.M. that I don't already know …unless it's late-breaking local info. If there's nothing to read/know, why pay for the "news"paper? Well…

1. The weekly FOOD section is fun. Some of the daily advice columns are entertaining (Miss Manners). I enjoy the bridge column and the six comics I read.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a graduate of top U.S. university, I read plenty of books and magazines plus bunches of content online. It's that my (big metro) paper is essentially useless as a source of actionable information …the foundational "news you can use" concept or other content not already covered by AM radio and local TV evening news.

2. My paper (should I disclose the name?) actually originates almost no news. Stories are all AP, N.Y. Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times agenda-driven choices. Management focuses hard on their political plan so much news is not even printed, e.g. anything remotely favorable to Bush, our strong economy, etc. Who can believe anything they print when I know what other opinions are never printed and what news is never reported?

3. The "real" content is on the two opinion pages. One-third of page one is more agenda editorial (Bush hates Blacks, Bush is cutting budgets, Bus lied) and the rest of page one contains selected reader letters 80% of which agree with previous editorials. Page two are opinion articles, 80% from N.Y. Times et al. If you need a daily injection of Bush bashing, my paper is for you.

Why do I get home delivery of this newspaper? My wife wants it because she's into coupon clipping lately. She also reads to Obits.

My conclusion is newspapers' decline is not about the Internet or other alternative news sources, but the lack of useful, impartial, intelligent content …the decline thereof over the past 25 years or so. I also believe folks hired to work at the paper must fit into the existing mold/agenda hence zero innovation now or ever. They are terminal. Bye Bye :-)

Stephen Urbish

January 6, 2006 11:26 AM

If the local newspaper is to survive and thrive it must become the porthole to an online product that delves deep into the local stories behind the headlines.

Picture a world where “subscribers” have morphed to “reader members”, where the local newspaper offers very short and concise recaps of news that directly impacts the community it serves.

Membership allows access to a web-based product that offers layers of coverage of the local story. Lets assume that our reader member lives in the township of Mansfield, NJ. The regional high school teacher union, after weeks of contract negotiations, has called for a strike. The print product gives the reader member the basic story under the headline TEACHERS WALK, teachers have walked out of their classrooms, many students have joined the picket line, administration is seeking a court order requiring the teachers get back to work. A URL address is specified at the end of the story. “For more information, and to post your thoughts on this subject, please go to: www.registernews/

The reader member goes to this page where he enters his unique membership number. The story is reprinted along with links that enable the reader member to view teacher salary history, enrollment numbers that include historical data showing the average number of students per class over the past ten years. There’s a link to a message board where the reader member is invited to post his opinion on this story. The page offers salary comparisons of teachers working in other districts. The print page advertising is mirrored along with links to our advertisers page, allowing for our reader member to order goods and services via the click of his mouse.

By bridging the print product with the online product, the publisher is enhancing and protecting his brand over the long term. The cyber publishing world, over time, will become fragmented and confusing. Directional readership will be dictated by numerous search engines. It is imperative that todays print publisher remain his readers main source of information over the long term.

The print publisher that understands the worth of his publication and its ability to assist the local reader member to understand his community will in fact protect his print brand and grow his online brand in ways that the cyber only publisher can not.


January 6, 2006 4:34 PM


After reading your article about the future of daily newspapers, I was glad to know there is still some interest -- maybe even some hope -- for this sunset business.

One thing I don't agree with, however, is your comment that the "per-page cost of newsprint is cheap." That is not the case any more. Newsprint is the second largest expense, only after the wages to many newspaper publishers. This raise looks to be a continuing trend in the foreseeable future (in 2005, there were three price increases and cost 26% more than in 2002, with the inventory still being very low). In order to reduce the impact of the price increase, many newspapers are changing the size of their publications, using lighter stock instead of heavier or thicker paper and converting the layout to smaller column-inches.

Basically, what they are trying to do is to yank more money from their advertisers with not just a rate hike, but also with smaller ad space. The advertisers learned the trick and responded with less of a budget for the papers. Less ads means less news, which decreases the value of the product. The papers not only look newspaperish, but they actually feel newspaperish. So everyone is blaming others for the decline of circulation, and forget their part in contributing to decline.

What I see in common between big network TV and daily newspaper, is not only the declining of readers/viewers, but they are also both lacking the instant two-way communication with their customers. Especially with the increasing speed in the past few years, the Internet performs this function with a minimal cost. People no longer have the patience or time to wait; the younger generation (future customers) particularly. In the Business 101, if there is no demand, supply shall be diminished. We are looking at a much more in-demand market within twenty years, unless the newspaper business can establish clear channels to communicate with their readers, then papers will have a very difficult time surviving in the 21st century.

That's why I like your ideas to use the readers; it's also the reason that reality shows are popular. The old-time media needs to find connections with their customers. That’s the survival game they will need to play. The golden age of the local monopolization on many daily newspapers is long gone. The publishers will need to apply different strategic plans that they aren’t used to. Check out, it’s not only a good example but also a very successful story of newspaper survival experience. Even with a very strong web site, the actual paid circulation is still growing, despite the competition that all other newspapers feared.

Time is changing, maybe people like to be under the spotlight, maybe not everyday, but proper attention must definitely be paid to the readers. Stop securing your customers by lowering the prices; you cannot win over the free papers. Showing that you care about your readers is more important; let them do the talking/writing. Be the media, not the preacher. God is listening; He actually does not talk all the time.


January 7, 2006 5:35 AM

I don't understand how so many people exist without reading a newspaper. Yet in my apartment building of 30 units, only 2 apartments get the daily paper delivered, myself and an 87 year old neighbor.

I've read a newspaper daily since I was a kid (40+ years). If I don't read it in the morning, I read it in the evening. The newspaper brings news, local, national and foreign packaged in a concise, easy to read format to your fingertips. But it is not only about news. You've also got special sections dedicated to the home, food, wine, arts, movie reviews, various columns, editorials and of course, the comics. On sunday you get extra sections, a magazine or two, coupons and in San Francisco, the Pink section. And it isn't easy to read about the local murders, obits and car crashes online! The newspaper is a single source of a wide variety of information that you can pick and choose from easily.

Sure, you can get more up-to-date news online and with a lot of work, you can cobble together a facsimile of a newspaper through various online sites. But it isn't the same. I've always wondered why online sites don't copy the format of a newspaper, which is tried and proven. Make a webpage look like a newspage. Hell, maker it look like a real newspaper. To do this though, we would need a modified browser. Something like where you roll your cursor over a story and it magnifies. Then if you hold it on the story for some period of time, the story pops open in a pop-up window. That would be pretty cool!

A paper newspaper can be read just about anywhere you have enough light and your reading glasses [lol]. OTOH, to read online, you generally need a net connection and enough battery power. And no matter what anyone may say, trying to read from a laptop while on the crapper just doesn't work well.

In my experience, people who read newspapers are more thoughtful and often easier to have a conversation with. They tend to be more "rounded". People who don't read newspapers often seem to be under-informed, less curious, more prone to wolf down their food, less patient, more prone to ADD, etc.

All that being said, newspapers need to embrace the online world better. Craigslist and eBay are killing the classifies in many newspapers. Google Base will just be another nail in this coffin. Newspapers need to find a way to replace revenue from classified ads. Either that or go toe-to-toe with these services by matching what they charge.

Maybe reducing the subscription costs to near zero would help (I pay $35 for 8 weeks home delivery now). They would probably get a lot more subscribers, which would attract more advertisers, which they should then be able to charge more $$ for running their ads. But one of the sticking points in doing this is the cost of physical newsprint and delivery.

Perhaps e-paper will help solve this problem. But I would still want a physical copy of the paper that I could read at the table when eating or easily carry around with me.

There aren't any easy answers. But I hope that newspapers don't die out in my lifetime.


January 10, 2006 10:09 PM

When industries fail to watch the changing market, problems occur. I'm going to print this for my boss because I've been telling them about creating an online campaign, but get brushed off. Maybe they don't trust me, I seem young, but coming from a male, they might reconsider brushing me off.

Thanks for the great post.

Roger Knights

January 10, 2006 11:43 PM

Here’s one small step that would help traditional newspapers a bit: they should print a title-abbreviation, plus the date of publication, at the start of every story. E.g. “NYT 2005-12-31.”
Certain readers——especially those who write articles or reports——regularly clip or photocopy stories and columns from newspapers. Such items often lack the part of the page that contains the date and/or title, forcing them to write those facts in by hand. But hand-entry is a pain in the neck, and it's error-prone: the date might be entered incorrectly, or not entered at all.
A datelined-newspaper would appeal to those readers, who are attracted to online news stories partly because they (usually) contain embedded dates. By doing so it would also implicitly proclaim to advertisers the seriousness and intelligence of its readership.
BTW, the old-style datelines that newspapers used to include forced clippers to provide the year and title, and to increment the day by one, so they weren't very helpful.


January 11, 2006 6:05 AM

Some great comments & thoughts, including:

“The old-time media needs to find connections with their customers. That’s the survival game they will need to play.” - Posted by: Paperboy on Jan. 6, 2006 - (He also warns of newspapers, here)

“Basically, what they are trying to do is to yank more money from their advertisers with not just a rate hike, but also with smaller ad space. The advertisers learned the trick and responded with less of a budget for the papers.”

Jojo (on January 7, 2006) posted:

“ … newspapers need to embrace the online world better. Craigslist and eBay are killing the classifies in many newspapers. Google Base will just be another nail in this coffin. Newspapers need to find a way to replace revenue from classified ads. Either that or go toe-to-toe with these services by matching what they charge”

I am surprised that little to no blame has been apportioned to “bloggers” as a reason for a newspaper (print) circulation decline, although this has been given plenty of ‘air’ in many an article, lately. I’m not so sure that they cannot be overcome, in due course.

(This is just one of the many comments that 'ring true' within this blog, link below)

"Why do the People Hate the Media"?

It is often said (lately) that Bloggers simply 'copy & comment' off of MSM (Main Stream Media) and that may very well be the situation, as does, currently exist. But is it reason to ‘throw the towel in’ (?) and surely not enough (as Jon Fine has advised) for Knight Ridder to ‘sell’ a bunch of newspapers. As bloggers are here to stay (and number plenty) it would be better for print media to look for solutions. They need to ‘think outside the square’ maybe? They certainly need to become competitive with those that they feel, could threaten their very survival. They are losing billions of precious advertising dollars to the net and in particular, to the major portals (Google, Yahoo, MSN & AOL) yet most support them with web search, on their ‘own’ sites!

For starters, they need to ‘win back’ control of those lost advertisers by capitalising on their ‘unique’ daily offering (both offline & online) & (as an industry) take up the ‘fight’ as a ‘collective’ by uniting with others who are suffering under the same circumstances. (Being Media Co’s, TV, Magazines, Journals, etc). They need to form ‘networks’ and ‘share’ both daily and historical content to and among all member, network sites. They need to restructure & ‘share’ archived content within newly formed ‘networks’. (Unity is STRENGTH). In the 1st instance they, (these many troubled newspapers) have a need to fully familiarise themselves with The NY Times website & how they have ‘tacked’ the future and in particular, have a good long look at this newspaper’s “TimeSelect” concept.

There IS no ‘sin’ in copying. It only becomes a ‘sin’, when you don’t improve on the concept, that being, what has been copied. Simply, do it better. Newspapers need to look beyond the major portals and quickly understand the potential in ‘other’ search offerings. The above example shows that “The NY Times” have selected a concept developed by Looksmart that allows certain privileges to their daily newspaper subscribers. (TimesSelect is a new service from The New York Times providing exclusive online access to Op-Ed columnists, The Times Archive and more. If you are a subscriber to The New York Times newspaper, TimesSelect is available for free.)

Do it better ? – Do it better than The NY Times?? YES. There are many ‘extensions’ (to their current offering) that can be discussed further if need be, that would (as an example of just one) include ‘access’ for daily ‘hard copy’ subscribers to all other ‘member’ newspaper archives, within a network, for research on a particular topic, etc,. (Involve Looksmart and their Furl ‘feature’, for an even better result?).

Contextual type ADS for starters (including national type accounts) could then be easily placed (the RHS of all pages) on all member archived content, by those many ‘network’ partners, with revenues from all AD ‘click throughs’ then being ‘shared’ by those respective partners, involved. (Many of which will come from ‘users’ coming from off of, the network’s newspaper websites, & others from former residents of the newspaper’s local area, or, even intending ‘new’ residents, to a particular area.)

Local ‘interaction’ (of the type) as posted by Stephen Urbish (on January 6, 2006), is (no doubt) a real winner with regular (“to & fro” daily) reference to ‘local’ activities being part of a newspaper’s hard copy & website offerings. Feedback is so important, as has been exampled here.

Only yesterday, Jupiter Research (from within a report released) makes mentions of the "grammar of connectedness". It is said to be

Newspapers need to collaborate on “what is working for us” in our print division, between all (or, any future), network partners. Share headlines and ‘share’ archived (articles) content.

Just some of my (many) thoughts on this question, coming to you from a long way away, (‘down under’), over here in Brisbane, Australia. - Cheers !!

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