Don’t go backward, newspapers!

By Steve Outing

Earlier this afternoon I tossed off a Twitter post that needs more than 140 characters to explain what I’m thinking. … What raised my disgust was this memo posted on Romenesko by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s managing editor, explaining a new policy to stop posting “signature investigative reporting, enterprise, trend stories, news features, and reviews of all sorts” on the Philly.com website first. (Breaking news still goes to the website right away.)

OK, I understand the thinking: The print product is suffering and this is a way to give it an edge — to encourage people to think that there’s some good stuff that you’ll get first by sticking with print.

But this is an argument that has been decided (or so I thought), so it’s disheartening to see a major newspaper go backward.

Jeff Jarvis said it nicely and succinctly in a Twitter post: “Insanely, suicidally stupid. If we keep out the gas stations, we’ll force them to ride horses, damnit.”

What’s long held back the newspaper industry and gotten it in the current mess has been holding back online innovation that might impact the legacy product (print). The kind of serious innovation that might have avoided the turmoil we’re now seeing among newspapers (especially larger metros like the Inquirer) could only take place with an attitude of “Let’s completely forget about the print edition and just try to build the best damn online service possible.”

But the industry didn’t do that, for the most part, instead settling for incremental innovation that wouldn’t upset things too much on the legacy side. That’s exactly the thinking that’s in this Inquirer memo.

I find this memo so discouraging.

21 Responses to "Don’t go backward, newspapers!"

  1. Dave Mastio
    Dave Mastio 6 years ago .Reply

    This is the classic mistake that companies with legacy products make. When faced with disruptive innovation and changing markets they try to protect the legacy product and the legacy market. I am not aware of any success stories.

    I wish I could get newspapers to start thinking of ways to go on the offensive. There’s plenty of local news audience on talk radio, watching local TV news, the local NPR station …

  2. David Herrold
    David Herrold 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve,

    When I first read the memo in question I thought “OMG, are they nuts?!?!”

    But then I thought about it for a moment. It actually makes perfect sense to hold feature pieces like this until the print component is ready to roll.

    There are two major reasons why this is a good idea.

    The first one is purely financial. Newspapers will simply sell more papers if they launch print and web together.

    The second reason involves buzz and penetration.

    Advertising agencies that use diverse mediums such as print, online, outdoor, radio and TV tend to launch their marketing campaigns in a blitz of all mediums at the same time (or within a short time of each other). This increases the buzz about a product and also increases the chances the public will notice it.

    When a newspaper releases a feature story or investigative piece in the paper, online and in mobile, it stands to reason they (we) are reaping the same promotional benefits.

    Remember, Philly is not talking about slowing down breaking news. They recognize breaking news should live on the fastest medium possible (web, email, mobile alerts, etc).

    I guess I just don’t think this is such a big deal since it doesn’t impact the real strength of the web, which is breaking news.

  3. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    David: I’d be less critical if the memo limited it to investigative enterprise packages, but going beyond that I don’t think is wise for the reasons I stated.

    Even with investigative enterprise stuff, there’s the possibility of other media scooping you when you hold it. Leaks out of the newsroom are pretty commonplace now. Wouldn’t it suck if your big Exclusive turned up on the 5pm news the night before you published it? Publishing when a story is ready is smarter in many ways.

    It’s the mindset that I most object to, though: Even though our readers are abandoning print as a medium, let’s try to force them to stick with it a bit longer.

  4. RoninDallas
    RoninDallas 6 years ago .Reply

    So, explain to me why a company with multi-millions invested in a print product and the staff to produce enterprise (which includes unique features), which readers and advertisers still will pay for, should give away its exclusive content? Doesn’t any business have the right and fiscal responsibility to be paid for its work? You really overestimate the number of people who surf for news and the effect of superficial leaks. Ideally, newspapers should CHARGE for this content on their Web sites, something they must figure out how to do before they give away the store forever.
    That said, the future for newspapers – and their Web sites – is leaner, meaner and more, rather than less, exclusive.

  5. Kirk LaPointe
    Kirk LaPointe 6 years ago .Reply

    It’s been hard to claim anything is a scoop since the invention of the clock radio. For decades we have started our days with a radio station talking about the newspaper’s story as if it was its own.
    What’s more, it’s hard to understand how much a scoop can drive a newspaper’s sale on a given day. So many factors contribute to the sale — yes, the story matters, but the main factors would be availability of time and the last experience one had with the paper.
    I can understand holding back some enterprise journalism and using the Web to promote it ahead of print publication (or, even better, taking a smallish element of that scoop and publishing it first online). But so much of what a newsroom publishes is in the public domain as a commodity that it’s hard any longer to know what’s a scoop and what’s simply basic reporting.
    I suspect the larger challenge for newspapers is to redefine themselves in a digital age, not to worry about trying to roll back the clock.

  6. [...] : Here’s Steve Outing’s reaction. [...]

  7. [...] exclamations of amazement and disgust (x 2) at the Philadelphia Inquirer’s new online policy (or should we say non-online policy? [...]

  8. David Herrold
    David Herrold 6 years ago .Reply

    This maneuver by newspapers across the nation reminds me of that scene from the original Indiana Jones movie.

    Harrison Ford is standing in a cave in front of a pedestal staring at a golden idol. He slowly places a bag of sand on the pedestal with one hand while slowly removing the idol with the other hand.

    Many people, yourself included, would like to see the industry snatch the golden idol and run with it as fast as they can.

    But in reality, that’s not financially feasible. Online revenue generated by newspapers pales in comparison to revenue generated by print (probably by a factor of 10 or more in many markets).

    I don’t think we’ll see any newspaper grab that golden idol and run out of the cave as fast as they can.

    The conversion of newspapers from a print-centric world to a web-centric world will be a gradual one.

    From the perspective of the newspaper industry, this change is happening with blinding speed. From the perspective of the web world (myself included) this change is happening at a snail’s pace.

    Depends on what angle you are looking.

    As far as I’m concerned, we need to look beyond the standard web and start considering mobile platforms for truly breaking news.

    If a tropical storm is headed my way (like Edouard this past week) I want my phone to vibrate in my pocket with the latest updates. In these cases, the web is too slow. Give me SMS with WAP updates.

    Now we’re talking about REAL speed in our breaking news.

    :)

  9. [...] on the subject of curmudgeons, declares Leary’s decree “suicide.” To Steve Outing, it is simply a “discouraging” step [...]

  10. David Herrold
    David Herrold 6 years ago .Reply

    RoninDallas,

    The answer to your question is: many newspapers have tried to charge for web content and none (barring the Wall Street Journal) have succeed with any margin of success. Even the New York Times has opened their Times Select because of poor performance.

    And the future of the WSJ’s pay-wall is shaky at best, according to Rupert Murdoch. The fundamental reasons for this difficulty are pretty simple.

    One, people won’t pay for content they can get for free elsewhere.

    And two, the revenue you can make through advertising far exceeds the revenue you could make by selling subscriptions to your content. The New York Times even wrote about their experience with Times Select here.

    Hope that helps paint a picture for you about why newspapers no longer charge for content online.

  11. [...] Outing: What’s long held back the newspaper industry and gotten it in the current mess has been holding back online innovation that might impact the legacy product (print). The kind of serious innovation that might have avoided the turmoil we’re now seeing among newspapers (especially larger metros like the Inquirer) could only take place with an attitude of “Let’s completely forget about the print edition and just try to build the best damn online service possible.” [...]

  12. Bill Gaffney
    Bill Gaffney 6 years ago .Reply

    Having been in the newspaper business for a long time, it pains me that they still haven’t figured this out (or bare minimum learned from the past).

    Newspapers (and most traditional media outlets as a whole) need to realize that their core asset isn’t the news print that the articles are published on but the reporting itself. The distribution model isn’t the product!

    Once they recognize this, then any distribution model opens up for them: radio, television, mobile, rss, internet, digital billboards, etc.

    - Bill Gaffney

  13. Will
    Will 6 years ago .Reply

    This sends the wrong message to the newsroom at a time when many traditional reporters are cynical about the Web, but the Inquirer editor is right.

    The print product and the Web product must be differentiated. They should each serve the purposes for which they’re best suited. Fill the print Inquirer with longer, more thoughtful news, feature and investigative pieces. Populate the Web with breaking stories, events, and servicey items. Whatever you do, make it clear that you can get different material in each place.

    At this point, online advertising is not paying for original reporting (at least not the text version). They want to hold onto their remaining print advertisers, so this is probably a way to let them know they’re getting premium content in the print product, and it’s worth continuing to advertise there.

  14. [...] you think you’re hearing the blogosphere howling in the distance, you probably can. More on this policy, and a response from the Inquirer, after the [...]

  15. Dan Pacheco
    Dan Pacheco 6 years ago .Reply

    What’s the television analogy of this? How about the Olympic opening ceremonies, which I read about in news stories this morning but have been unable to see video for until this evening. That’s because of an intentional business agreement between NBC and the Olympics. It annoys the hell out of me. But … I want to see it, and I will be watching it on regular old Cable TV tonight.

  16. Chris Krewson
    Chris Krewson 6 years ago .Reply

    Hi Steve. Thanks for writing about our shop.

    I don’t know if you saw this, but I talked a bit with Ryan Sholin on Friday about our memo, as well as Amy Gahran at Poynter, to get a little more into what it really means – so I thought your commenters might find those things of interest as well:

    http://ryansholin.com/2008/08/08/chris-krewson-on-philadelphia-inquirer-memo/

    and…

    http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=148439

    Best,

    Chris Krewson
    Executive Editor, Online / News
    The Philadelphia Inquirer

  17. [...] Steve Outing, a journalist, consultant and entrepreneur, followed: “It’s disheartening to see a major newspaper go backward. [...] What’s long held back the newspaper industry and gotten it in the current mess has been holding back online innovation that might impact the legacy product (print). The kind of serious innovation that might have avoided the turmoil we’re now seeing among newspapers (especially larger metros like the Inquirer) could only take place with an attitude of “Let’s completely forget about the print edition and just try to build the best damn online service possible.” But the industry didn’t do that, for the most part, instead settling for incremental innovation that wouldn’t upset things too much on the legacy side.” [...]

  18. [...] Jarvis, Steve Outing, David Carr and Roy Greenslade are probably right when they predict that the web is the future [...]

  19. [...] the organization is simply making explicit what news organizations everywhere already do. Many commentators saw things differently, but is the Inquirer really being excoriated for waiting 15 [...]

  20. menopause support
    menopause support 6 years ago .Reply

    Hi, I agree, that this problem exists, I think newspapers just want to earn more money, and the can do it only if they hurl print and web together.

  21. [...] seems there are two sides to the argument. On the one side is boss Jarvis and Steve Outing. On the other hand Howard Owens brings an alternative view. Reading about all this later I see I [...]

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