A balanced argument on the future of newspapers

Jason Pontin posted a long piece on Technology Review yesterday entitled “How to Save Media” – in it he looks at the history of the newspaper and magazine industries and gives a balanced view of the challenges they face today before coming to his ‘manifesto’, which is his view as an industry insider of what he and his colleagues need to do to save their companies.

Regular readers will know I am of the general opinion that print media is on it’s way out and newspapers and magazines are on course to be more a part of history than of the present.  We will still need and read news of course, but we will receive it digitally and read it on our laptops/phones/dedicated e-readers.

It turns out Jason thinks more or less the same thing, and his argument is that traditional news and magazine companies can be the ones who research/write/edit/create that content and organise for the delivery to our digital devices.  The main challenge, of course, is finding a way to do all this and make a profit!

If you are into this sector the whole piece is well worth a read.  Here are a couple of highlights:

  • Newspapers are in trouble – advertising revenues declined 30% in Q109 (three more quarters of that and there is nothing left…), and subs declined 7% in the second half of 2008 – unsurprisingly lots of them are going bust
  • An overview of the thinking of Clay Shirky and Dave Winer on the future for the industry – in a nutshell non-profits and amateurs will take over as the primary source of news generation, and distribution will come via social media, e.g. Twitter retweets
  • Jason’s counter that their mistake is to under-estimate the difficulties in organising journalists and producing good content, and that it will take professionally run companies to do it well – we do, after all, seek out the NYT, FT, Guardian etc online today
  • But, to make it all work we need innovation in display advertising and subscription/other content charging mechanisms.  Moreover, if content is charged for on one media (e.g. print) it should carry an equivalent charge on all others (i.e. not be free on the web).
  • Publishers need to change their mindset from proprietorial – giving readers what the editor thinks is best for them – to customer focused, giving customers what they say they want.  Jason says that at Technology Review their rule of thumb is that 80% of the content is what customers say they want and 20% is editorially driven to ‘blow the customers mind’.  That is an idea I like.