Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Grey Lady no more

Newspapers have been suffering a long, slow slide as ad revenues in print media decline and revenues in online media fail to compensate. The slide has accelerated in the current recession and most papers either fear for their survival or have plans to leave the scene. The big nationals -- Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NY Times -- at first seemed primed to pick up the pieces. It's been thought that, as in past economic slumps, the businesses with greatest capitalization will be able to expand by purchase of failed competitors and will emerge stronger than ever when the economy's downturn reverses.

In the news business, most of us can think of dailies that were bought out by competitors during hard times. Ones that come to my mind include the a bunch of NY papers including the Press, PM, Daily Mirror, Evening Graphic, Brooklyn Eagle. The mastheads of surviving papers tended to grow and grow. The World, Telegram, and Sun survived the three papers in its name, and then it died. The Evening Journal and the American merged to the Journal American and then that paper died. The Herald and Tribune merged and then the Herald Tribune died.

This time around it's unlikely that the big papers can count on a survival of the fittest. There's no rosy future for the big national papers, even the very biggest and strongest, unless they find ways to -- as it's said -- successfully monetize the internet.

Of the biggies, I have been thinking the WSJ and FT have the best chance of achieving this success. They both have a relatively well-heeled readership, both have current pay-per-view internet policies that seem to work ok, and both have highly-respected knowledge bases that are not easily duplicated (meaning they can't easily be knocked out of their niche positions by bloggers or other competing online media).

I've respected the NYT for the strengths it's shown along similar lines. As newspaper-of-record you'd think it had much the same advantages as do WSJ and FT. But apparently this is not so. An attempt to charge readers for online views failed miserably.

And now we're getting reports of serious problems. Last month the paper said it needed to raise millions of dollars by mortgaging its headquarters building and more recently it began putting ads on the front page. As one paper reported:
The cash-strapped New York Times put up for sale on Monday its most treasured piece of property: the front page. After staff cuts, page reductions, and plans to re-mortgage the gleaming Manhattan headquarters, the daily has now opened its editorial holy of holies to advertising. The maiden ad, a color banner display for CBS television across the bottom of the page, might seem innocuous. But it reflects troubling economic times in the battered US newspaper industry. The daily described the invasion of advertising into the once sacrosanct page as "the latest concession to the worst revenue slide since the Depression."
It's sad. Particularly so since the Times web presence has gained a well-deserved popularity. The Times pages are among the most popular sites on the web with high ratings not just for number of views but also for the length of time spent viewing pages.

And it's sad because the Times has made some excellent innovations in its web presence, not just placing itself on social sites like Facebook, with a couple hundred thousand fans, but also producing good stuff of its own. Here are three that I like.

1. The Annotated New York Times which the paper calls "The New York Times... Remixed." There are descriptions here and here.

2. Blogrunner, which the Times says, "is a news aggregator that monitors articles and blog posts and tracks news stories as they develop across the Web." (See the FAQ: What is Blogrunner?.)

3. Week in Review
This, in paper form, goes back to my childhood; we used to receive free copies in the classroom back in the 1950s.

Online, it offers much more than the paper version does or ever did, with categories such as LaughLines, Ideas, and Cartoons as well as Most-Emailed and Most-Blogged stories, a Weekly News Quiz, This Week's Headlines, Editors' Choices (In Case You Missed It), and a graphic link to an online version of the paper copy:

This, from the current issue, is a nice example of its content:
The Buzzwords of 2008.

Here's the first entry:
Largely used online, this is a verb turned into a mass noun, as in “A bucket of fail.” Common forms include epic fail, meaning a huge overall tendency toward failure or a great example of failure, and FAIL! as an interjection or derogation. Often an antonym of win, seen online in forms like “Full of win!” which means, “It’s good!”
It's not an objection, to me, that some the stuff in these three pages -- Annotated Times, Blogrunner, and Week in Review -- is repurposed from other Times pages. Its packaging of them and the value added to them make the three standout nicely.


A couple of pages for further info on the main topic of this blog post:

State of the News Media 2008

Defunct New York City newspapers

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