Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Survival Strategy for Newspapers

To say that nothing will save the newspaper industry because there is so much news already available for free on the Internet is like saying that there is no future for writing new novels because there are already so many novels available. But the existence of previously written novels never stopped new novelists from being successful. However, there is no future, undoubtedly, for novelists who write for free.

The idea of newspaper has always been to provide, foremost, local news, and if any of those newspaper death-wishers want their local news on the Internet, where would they go? Of course, the websites of their local newspapers, where newspapers are faithfully making their contents available free of charge.

The survival of most newspapers has always depended on their unique local contents—their national and international contents were, with a few exceptions of major city newspapers such as New York Times and Washington Post, always provided by the international press agencies such as Reuters and AP. In fact, nowadays, even the major city newspapers are using content provided by the news agencies rather than by their own reporters to the point that most American newspapers have national and international sections that are virtually identical. Their readers know this, and they are now going to the sources of the news now that it is possible to do so via the Internet.

But local news is not so easy to obtain, although there are local TV station providing them on fixed time slots. Local TV stations have always competed with their local newspapers, but until the advent of the Internet, newspapers had an advantage in that once the newsprint was in the reader’s hand, it was always readily available, whereas TV viewers had to wait for local news to come on at pre-specified times. This is no longer the case, since all local TV stations post their news on the Internet.

TV stations, in essence, have become more like paperless newspapers also. Thus, in order for newspaper to survive, they must become more of a multimedia provider than just a printed news provider. This was not possible in the days of limited TV channel availability and tight cross-ownership restrictions set by the FCC, but the Internet makes all that mute. Here are some strategic points for newspaper to consider:

First, the newspapers buying news content from the international press agencies must demand that those agencies stop providing news free of charge on the Internet; after all, why should newspapers pay for the news agencies’ reporting, but not the online readers who can access the agencies’ website directly? This does not make any business sense.

Second, all locally generated newspaper content must be fee-based for access, and newspapers must stop providing links to the full articles to news aggregators, such as Google—only the headlines and short trailers should be posted. If Google doesn’t like the idea, newspapers should invest in a venture to build a news aggregator website that caters to their interest better than Google.

Third, establish an industry-wide agency similar to RIAA to enforce the copyright law so that the Internet hobbyists cannot repost news without prior approval from the sources of their reposting. It would also help to ask Congress to pass addenda to the copyright law to tighten reposting requirements and legal obligations on the Internet on copyrighted news items.

Fourth, newspapers must recognize that the wasteful practice of printing news on millions of tons of newsprint must come to an end (the same for magazines); thus, the transition to e-readers is inevitable, logical, and environmentally sound.

Fifth. E-readers should be provided as a part of each annual newspaper subscription. Furthermore, they should have additional functionalities for subscribing to periodicals, as well as reading online e-books (each newspaper can build its own unique library of e-books with reviews, recommendations, and limited-time free offers). The bundling of e-readers with subscription is probably the most difficult part of the survival strategy, as it might not be financially feasible until the cost of each e-reader reaches at $100 or less. It is certain to happen, but perhaps not soon enough to save many of the major newspapers that have a high level of expense to maintain their operations.

There are many, many other things that can be done to re-enhance the attractiveness of local newspapers, but in reality, what they must become is not just newspapers to keep up with the latest news but multimedia news sources and the hubs for all sorts of reliable and unique local information that otherwise might be hard to find in any other single website. Local newspaper people know their locality the best, so they need to take full advantage of their knowledge with the help of the Internet.

Remove the Cross Ownership Ban

Recently, Senator John Kerry expressed his interest in helping the beleaguered newspaper industry, but at the same time he said he was against removing media ownership rules that prevent newspapers from owning TV stations in the same market. This is nonsense, if not hypocrisy. If newspapers vanish then what is the point of having the cross-ownership ban?

The reality is that the ban had been broken for at least a decade—by TV stations. Since the advent of the Internet more than a decade ago, virtually all local TV stations in the US have their own web sites, where their news are posted in PRINT. In essence, local TV stations had become paperless newspapers also.

Local newspapers and TV stations have always been in competition, and so long as they stuck to a specific medium (print or video), it was a fair completion; but now that TV station are posting printed news on the Internet so that their audience can read news at any time, newspapers are at a distinct disadvantage. The competition is no longer on a fair playing field.

If Sen. Kerry thinks it is a good idea to keep newspaper and TV stations as competing entities in a local market, then restore the parity by requiring that local TV stations cannot post their news in print; that is, they should only be allowed to stream their videos on the Internet so that the level playing field can be restored again. Otherwise, Congress should remove the ban.

Insuring the survival of professional Journalism

Journalism thrives best in a protective environment (to protect authors from harassment and censure by authorities and vested interest groups), and that environment traditionally has been provided by newspapers and press organizations. Journalism would be far more difficult, haphazard—and dangerous—undertaking, were we to allow traditional newspapers and their influential presence in their communities to be replaced by ragtag collections of free-lance writers, citizen-reporters, part-time bloggers, and bored housewives all communicating via Skype on weekly conference calls, and typing away their unedited copies onto Web pages.
So here are four basic action plans to insure that the traditional protective cocoon for independent and professional journalism, known as newspapers and magazines, survive:

First, the wasteful practice of printing news on millions of tons of newsprint must come to an end; thus, the transition to e-readers is inevitable, logical, and environmentally sound. Newspapers must embrace e-readers which should be included in the cost of their annual subscription.

Second, in the name of plebeian egalitarianism and freedom of speech, the rights of copyright holders have been massively violated on the Internet. It cannot be stopped completely, but Congress needs to implement additional reasonable measures to curtail it.

Third, the relevance and survival of newspapers has always been dependent on papers’ local markets. Thus, newspapers need to explore various additional means to provide unique, value-loaded services to their communities via the Web that were not possible on a limited space of the newsprint. Newspapers must become cross-media information sources. Thus, the federal ban on cross-media ownership should be removed.

Additionally, why Google? Each major local newspaper should create its own locally unique and extensive database for its own local search engine with the help of the community. By its own admission, Google indexes only a few percent of the entire Web: a lot of useful data are being left out. A unique local or regional search engine can fill in the blank, and make money at it.