Survival of the newsiest

BY ADAM SULLIVAN | JUNE 18, 2009 7:21 AM

You are probably reading this for free.

Sure, there’s a chance you pay for a subscription or that you picked this up at a convenience store for half a buck. But, more likely, you grabbed this copy of the DI for free on campus — where it’s hard to stroll a quarter mile without picking up a copy — or you’re reading online.

Unfortunately, sooner or later, that’s going to change. While newspapers don’t want to charge you to read their content they will eventually have to in order to stay alive.

Relying on advertising dollars is a problem … or a couple problems, really. For one, the economy is sucky. Businesses are bringing in fewer dollars and, as a result, have fewer dollars to shell out to print publications for ad space. And, second, more advertisers are turning to the Internet for lots and lots of very cheap ad space. Ten years ago, if you wanted to sell a car, you wouldn’t hesitate to call up your local rag and list a classified ad. Now, though, Craigslist is your first stop.

Newspapers can’t work for free, though. Reporters, designers, and photographers (and columnists, too!) need to eat — and buy fancy coffees and trendy clothes. So, newspeople are stuck with finding a way to make money.

This challenge, in fact, has created a rift of sorts in the news community. Some say we just have to pump out more online content and find ways to attract advertisers to the online product. Others, though, insist content shouldn’t be free any longer and that we should start charging people to access certain parts of our websites.

Which camp is right? Both of them … but mostly the second one.

Regardless of how a news outlet earns revenue — either through advertising or through subscriptions or a combination of the two — they have to be creating a product that isn’t available anywhere else. There’s a few ways to do that.

The first — and most traditional — way to do that is to be really, really, ridiculously good at what you do. Readers know when journalists are lazy or just plain bad. Traditionally, readers have put up with that because they didn’t have another news source to turn to. Now, though, news markets are saturated with information; readers can drop one news source and pick up another with great ease.

The next step in making an in-demand product is to be hyper-local. National and international news is in high demand, but it’s in even higher supply; coverage of national politics and gossip is more accessible than ever. However, coverage of local events, trends, and feelings is often nonexistent. If news people switch their focus from the big picture to the tiny picture, they’ll attract many more local readers who can’t get hyper-local coverage anywhere else.

Finally, news websites need to be really cool. There has to be lots and lots of fun stuff for people to read, watch, listen to, and interact with. Before the Internet, journalists didn’t have any means beyond words and photos to tell stories. Words and photos are still extremely useful, but we should always ask ourselves what the best medium for telling each story is. Sometimes it will be words, but often, it will be something else.

Undoubtedly, many news outlets are going be forced out of business because they can’t create a product that is in both in short supply and high demand. Newspeople shouldn’t fear that transition. There’s too much news and the natural way to cure that problem is to let some news outlets fail. The ones that survive will attract more advertising dollars and, more importantly, will be able to attract more readers who will be willing to pay for access to news.

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