Do newspapers need a new business model to survive?

by Carl Natale on November 5, 2010

How to make sure news stays profitableThe problem with newspapers is aggregation.

Talk to a news publisher and you will hear a rant about the aggregators who capture the news and insert it into their advertising supported web sites. I find this a bit disingenuous because newspapers have been doing this for centuries.

Yes, I know they employ armies of reporters and editors to write and present news. This is compared to bloggers and aggregators who rely on newspapers to report the news. This makes journalists with this work ethic more noble but aggregators none the less.

Here’s what a newspaper does in very simple terms. It collects news and information about many subjects from many sources. It’s the many subjects aspect that qualifies the best journalism you can find as aggregation.

Open a newspaper. What do you find? Politics. Crime. High school sports. Everything a geographic community wants to know. Newspapers are containers of a wide range of subjects.

And Ken Doctor,  author of Newsonomics and contributor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, explains very well why this is a problem:

The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

via The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles » Nieman Journalism Lab.

Here’s the thing. News is still relevant and valued. It’s the role that newspapers have as aggregator (or container as Doctor puts it) that has lost value.

We have bloggers to thank for that. And we can blame our friends and family members who share links to interesting news via e-mail, tweets and Facebook updates. These are the new networks that are distributing news.

Doctor lays out a compelling case for using Kindle Singles as a way to publish and distribute news. So if you want to recreate news publishing this way, this what needs to happen:

  • News organizations become a collection of editors, reporters, photographers and graphic artists.
  • Some organizations may rely on freelance content creators.
  • News content is created much the same way it is now.
  • Instead of publishing all that content under one mast head, the news put up for sale in many forms.
  • Aggregators and bloggers become 21st century news hawkers – aka affiliates. They link to content behind pay walls and get a cut.
  • Friends can share links with URL shorteners that share revenues.

This isn’t perfect. For one thing, news organizations will lose the ability to print money. Oh wait. That’s already happened.

But here’s the big problem with this idea: Loss of control and identity. Once the news gets distributed, editors have no control over how it’s presented and packaged.

The pride and cachet of working for a newspaper gets lost once people start reading your stories that they find on the local food blog.  This isn’t good for journalism because pride is a driving factor in quality reporting. Yes individual pride drives many journalists. But they do their best work when they are proud of what their employer represents.

Maybe newspapers keep profitable by syndicating their content but keep their pride by maintaining their mast heads. Hey, I keep telling business owners that web sites and blogs are great ways to market themselves and establish themselves as authorities in an industry.

Hopefully that will work for newspapers.

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