What a surviving newsroom will look like when the presses go silent

By Steve Outing

My latest column for Editor & Publisher Online was posted this morning:

The All-Digital Newsroom of the Not-So-Distant Future

It’s my take on what a newspaper that’s decided to completely ditch its print edition but survive and reinvent itself as a digital-only local news entity will look like. I envision a news operation that still has enough left to be a force in the community and an effective watchdog, and run as a profitable business.

It’s looking like we’ll see that happen soon. Top candidate is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which owner Hearst Corp. has said will either be shut down soon or become a down-scaled online-only news organization. That’s of course if no buyer is found. In this economic landscape? Not likely.

Similar situations are possible in other U.S. cities.

Please discuss. … What do you think a surviving and reinvented digital “newspaper” will look like?

18 Responses to "What a surviving newsroom will look like when the presses go silent"

  1. Sam Deleo
    Sam Deleo 6 years ago .Reply

    Thanks for the thought-provoking story, Steve. Here are a few questions it raised with me:

    1. How is the new model funded? The discrepancy between print and online ads is a gaping maw, not a narrow gap. Otherwise, wouldn’t there be plenty of blogs already producing local news content using the methods you describe, albeit on a smaller scale than newsrooms?

    2. An interesting study (http://adjix.com/c9bj) by ABCe in the U.K. found 71 % of newspaper website visitors were also regular readers of the print versions. It would be interesting to see what the numbers are in the U.S., but 71% definitely supports some printed accompaniment of an online newspaper, maybe only in a “weekly edition” format.

    3. The age of “print” definitely seems to be exiting quickly. But what if it doesn’t matter? Even assuming the number cited above is much, much different in the U.S., will people who don’t read news stories in print suddenly begin reading them online? I think that some of what we are witnessing occur in the print world IS a question of content, not just technology — didn’t McLuhan show them to be inextricably connected? I would love to hear your thoughts regarding this, because its seems to be an issue we aren’t often including in the discussion about the fall of newspapers.

  2. Marcus
    Marcus 6 years ago .Reply

    So papers should do less of the things they do well – deeply reported stories – and do more of the things they don’t do well and that you can find in 5,000 other places. Ok. Blogs! Poorly made videos like the kind that populate youtube! Twitter! 300-word stories!

    And reporters should work on adding to their friends on Facebook instead of doing what they have the time and ability to do: report, and write. Ok.

  3. Charles Batchelor
    Charles Batchelor 6 years ago .Reply

    Sam,

    1) How is this model funded? News creates a brand, the challenge is to build the channel. Or, as Steve Outing said in a previous column, newspapers have to operate more like ad agencies.

    2) The UK is an online leader in many ways. They are worth watching. I think some kind of “print accompaniment” will work. I used to do compelling monthly and weekly publications delivered by the mail. Again, another channel. Media companies need to build lots and lots of channels. Online and in print. Billboards. Banners behind airplanes. (Whatever happened to the idea of media convergence, anyway?)

    3) The news matters. It just needs to pay for itself. It might have to be a loss-leader, that is to say, what the media company uses to maintain its local brand as THE way to reach consumers worth reaching, but that has real value.

  4. Sam Deleo
    Sam Deleo 6 years ago .Reply

    I hope you are right about your third point, Charles, otherwise we are in trouble. I’m no expert on social media (and I would be wary of those who claim they are), but my personal experience with it is that we gain an overload of information from it sans any historical or social contexts, which is what news “stories” are supposed to provide. Can we condense research, can we abbreviate context, does the form fit the content?

  5. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    Marcus: You’ll note that I suggested holding on to a newspaper’s star columnists (celebrity draw to keep traffic high) and best watchdog reporters. The reality of a failed paper and surviving digital operation is that, yes, it’ll be difficult to afford the long, deeply reported stories until the business model is worked out to fund it. But there are alternatives, such as the Spot.us experiment of crowdfunding investigative stories; or seeking foundation funding for investigative projects; or getting interns from a local J-school to assist a reporter so a deeply reported or investigative piece won’t take so much of his/her time; or using the beatblogging model to get some help from experts in the audience. I was drawing a first sketch of a survival strategy, and that is unlikely to allow continuing doing journalism in the way healthy newsrooms have done in the past. The hope will be that it’ll grow back to a news operation with the funds to do lots more deep and investigative reporting in the future.

    As to “do more of the things they don’t do well and that you can find in 5,000 other places,” that’s exactly what I am saying DO NOT do. Especially with a post-paper digital news operation, the deadline is 1 minute ago. So cover local news like a 24/7 operation, but focus on what you canNOT find elsewhere, which is mostly local, important news. This post-paper scenario will probably dispense with lots of things that aren’t really necessary any more. Movie reviews: That’s covered so well and deeply on the web (and smartphones) that there’s not much point in paying a digital newsroom staff movie reviewer any more. So I think I’m saying the opposite of what you accuse me of.

    Blogs: It’s a format! When I say a professional crime reporter has a blog, I simply mean that he’s using the blog format in place of the conventional 10-inch newsprint (or web text) story that’s posted hours after the event is known to everyone through cable TV, NPR, e-mail and mobile news alerts, etc. Perhaps you (as do many people) equate blog with “unprofessional.” A professional journalist publishing content in blog format is journalism, and the credibility of the brand and the reporter are what make it stand out from all the many amateur blogs.

    Facebook and Twitter: Any news website that wants to operate as an island and expect people to come to it will fail. In the online environment, you have to reach out to other channels to let people know about your work and drive them to it. But the way you do that in this new social media environment online is by *connecting* with them, not just throwing marketing spam at them. Sorry if you don’t like that or if it offends your journalistic sensibilities, but this is the state of the digital world. Ignore connecting with your audience — and continue to treat them as “your readers” — at your peril. … This takes more time: Yes. But you also get a lot back, like story ideas and information you would otherwise not know about, tips, expert sources. It’s not all you giving, it’s give and get back. And in my scenario, I suggested that reporters may need intern or editorial assistant help for some of this.

  6. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    Sam,
    1. As you noticed, I predicted a smaller editorial staff, and I make the assumption that a reasonable percentage of newspaper advertisers will be convinced to advertise with the new digital news service (brand loyalty). So obviously in this scenario (existing newspaper loses print edition, but continues on as digital-only) this reinvented entity has an enormous leg up on local news start-ups, with enough ad revenue coming in from early on to support a smaller editorial team that’s using new methods to work more efficiently (the social-media strategy I wrote about in the column).

    I also suggested a beefed up technology staff; more developers to devise and create new services that will bring in revenue. We still need to figure out how to make money from using mobile for our content and community services. Investing in a technology staff will bring new revenue sources that we haven’t dreamed up yet, especially if making money is a key piece in what they’re asked to do.

    On blogs, I’m actually pretty optimistic about this approach. I interviewed a social media manager (a new position) at LATimes.com recently, and he pointed to the success of the Top of the Ticket political blog by Andrew Malcolm, a veteran newspaper correspondent and Pulitzer finalist (in his 60s). He moved over completely to producing Top of the Ticket, which became one of the Technorati Top 100 blogs. Malcolm also uses Twitter regularly and has a following there of more than 2,000 people. I was told that Malcolm’s blog gets viewed by perhaps 10 times the number of people who read his traditional political coverage in the printed LA Times and on LATimes.com. Now that’s probably a best-case scenario, but if we go by the conventional wisdom that $10 in print ad revenue equals $1 in online revenue, then Malcolm’s blog is bringing in revenue equivalent to what his old print content produced for the company.

    Top of the Ticket is successful because it takes a social-media approach. Malcolm blogs, participates in discussion threads, and uses Twitter. He could do more to be interactive, I think, but the quality of his content has propelled Top of the Ticket to one of the most popular on the web. (At least it was during election season.) I’m optimistic that under my post-paper newsroom scenario, this type of thing is repeatable, and can be profitable.

    2. In my column I envisioned the scenario of a print edition completely shutting down, but I bet we’ll see some Christian Science Monitor-like moves, with online 24/7 news dominant and a single weekend print edition. For a metro paper that kept enough printing and circulation staff to put out a weekly edition (or contracted that out), it keeps the lucrative Sunday print ad inserts business, which is not something most publishers would want to give up. Hearst has not said that that’s an option in Seattle, and its Post-Intelligencer, if no buyer turns up soon, will shut down or go digital only. And a successful digital news operation well may find it worthwhile to publish some niche print publications — returning to print in a much smaller way.

    I can’t seem to put my hands on the latest U.S. version of the U.K. stat above, sorry. Anyone else know where to find that stat?

    3. I wish I could find it (delicious and Google both fail me tonight), but I recall a recent study demonstrating that the younger demographic really is interested in news. While older folks might seek out favorite news sites, younger people for whom social networks are a lifestyle, are more likely to share links to news stories they think are important or interesting or funny via the social networks. They may learn about an important news story by seeing a link to it from a Facebook friend who’s shared it and it shows up the friends’ FB Newsfeed. Or Twitter. Or an e-mailed or IM’ed link to a story. Or a link to a story of a blog. Atomization of content is more the norm for the digital generation; they don’t so much require the news packages (newspaper, TV newscast, website) that we old fogies are used to. But that change in behavior doesn’t mean that they don’t care about what’s going on in the world and their communities; they just consume it more randomly in bits and pieces, throughout their day. (I’m definitely generalizing here!)

    On the question of content, online and mobile offer multiple choices of content type. As the newspaper companies adapt, I’d suggest that they need to adjust to offering more of a mix of text, multimedia, video, and audio. Look at how much more variety of content you see on NYTimes.com now compared to a few years ago. David Pogue is a good example: You can read his traditional column; or watch his (campy) videos; or get his e-mail newsletter (different content than the column). Yeah, that’s a lot of work. More doable is looking at every story and deciding which is THE best way to present it. I think the best digital news websites mix it up, so that on a visit I might read a story or blog item, watch a video, and listen to an audio interview — and of course leave my opinion in a comment.

    I think a “newspaper” company can offer content of interest to younger people and get away from the mid-50s average age of the print reader. Getting 20something reporters to write stories appealing to people in their 20s: not must point if it’s in the print edition. The right content (of interest to 20s reader) in format that they use (say, iPhone), then they’ll consume what your brand has to offer. So yeah, I agree that it’s content and technology that must both be right.

  7. John Einar Sandvand
    John Einar Sandvand 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve,

    I found your article very interesting, indeed. As for myself, I live in Scandinavia, where newspapers so far have stayed much stronger than in the USA and also been able to take a position as leading national web sites.
    But even in our part of the world we are feeling the heat. Especially income from classified ads have dropped dramatically during the last few months and most media companies have announced cost-cutting plans. I think it will be a matter of time before the first Scandinavian newspapers will be forced to cease publication and go into an all-digital operation.

    The main challenge will be how to pay for quality journalism in the future. What will be a sustainable business model bringing in enough income to pay for the costs?

    I wish I knew.

  8. Dan Goodman
    Dan Goodman 6 years ago .Reply

    The Twin Cities area of Minneapolis has two post-print newspapers which began on the Web: MinnPost Daily (http://minnpost.com) and the Twin Cities Daily Planet (http://tcdaily.net). The first has several reporters and columnists who used to work at the Star Tribune. Both are nonprofit.

    I would be surprised if this isn’t also happening in other metro areas.

  9. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    Dan: Just to be clear, my scenario looks at what might happen if an existing newspaper gets to the point of having to drop print and go all-digital.

    The examples you cite, of new web-only news organizations starting from scratch (often by or including cast-off newspaper journalists), are now quite common. But obviously I’d paint various different scenarios if trying to dream up how those would look. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be non-profit, but it surely would be smaller than the newspaper that’s gone all-digital.

  10. Lewis Dvorkin
    Lewis Dvorkin 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve,

    I am very much in agreement with you on your predictions for the new digital newsroom. I’m the Founder and CEO of TrueSlant.com, a new kind of News network with backing from Forbes Media and Velocity Interactive Group. We are in Alpha testing right now with 25 or so test contributors who are doing many of the things you are talking about. I recently commented on Fred Wilson’s blog about similar points he was making. It’s an exciting new world for journalists, authors, experts, academics and others with topic specific news knowledge who embrace the dynamics of the web. At True/Slant, we’re providing the tools and more for credible and experienced content creators to connect with news enthusiasts who want to know.

    Lewis

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  12. Stu Lowndes
    Stu Lowndes 6 years ago .Reply

    Dear Steve,

    The journalist of the future may become a digital newshawk and gadget-carrying multi-functional social-networked cyber-reporter-blogger with a passion for video-audio-print presentations operating from the twilight zone of virtual reality – a pixel-pushing replicant employed by the Tyrell-NYT Corporation on the prowl in the microchip jungle for Johnny Mnemonic.

    He/she/it will be blessed with total recall, a wireless Intel implant; a blade runner originally seeded as a Brad Pitt clone look-alike in a secretive CIA lab somewhere in Brooklyn, and one of many used as universal soldiers in Quebec, a slave colony, and elsewhere.

    The newspaper of the future may become a ghost in the touch-screen technologies of Odyssey 2050, a rather insidious smart “cookie” used by the media and other interested agencies to track, monitor, and report the evil doers of a so-called free society, a one-eyed trojan implemented to protect the nation and operating system of Microsoft.

    I am evidently suffering from watching too many X-Files …

    In the good ‘ol days of journalism, we wrote a story on a clunky black typewriter, a cigarette dangling from our mouths, and left the building wearing a dirty trenchcoat and a fedora, cocked every so slightly, and made our way to the press club for a game of poker, a bottle of Johnny Walker, and, if available, the city editor’s wife.

    What happened?

    Today, I’ve lost my ink-stained soul, my paper, my dearly departed friends, my poker-playing pals, and I’m staring at this fuckin’ screen on the mother of all gadgets looking for an answer. I’m mad as hell and I won’t take it anymore!

    I’m glad I got that off my chest.

    Dreams die last, the author said.

    From my window, out there, I see these kids with plugs in their ears, cellphones clipped to their belts, knapsacks that can whack the shit out of little ‘ol men and, of course, notebooks or netbooks – some white, some pink, some black.

    These Children of the Chip look a little dazed, out to lunch, zombie-like, move a little strange, talk a little weird, and I begin to believe I am in the wrong place, the wrong time, a journey in the silence of age and yesterday.

    We have come a long way since MS-DOS and down-and-dirty software.

    The 25-year-old in the next room sleeps with her Mac, and I wake up with Charly, my desktop PC, a P4 with Windows XP and red-colored duct tape pasted over a fan speed control switch – a CPU cooler so loud, it sounds like a Pratt & Whitney jet engine.

    Charly, however, works.

    So does the Net, most of the time.

    And, that’s the issue, isn’t it?

    I have become a Google-ized ‘ol fart, and no different than that 25-year-old who now lives, works, breathes and talks in bits ‘n’ bites, one of the millions of denizens who now inhabit a virtual world with virtual friends in a virtual existence – a global sandbox where e-mail and YouTube and RSS and Mp3s and Twitter and Facebook have replaced … friends and family and those moments and memories of another time, another place.

    Blogs?

    A cost-effective approach to having your say, professional and otherwise.

    We *connect* with our market, our audience, our fans, and try to persuade, to inform, to enlighten, to entertain, to sell.

    Top of the Ticket has become one of the Technorati Top 100 blogs.

    “Malcolm … has a following there of more than 2,000 people … if we go by the conventional wisdom that $10 in print ad revenue equals $1 in online revenue, then Malcolm’s blog is bringing in revenue equivalent to what his old print content produced for the company.”

    “Top of the Ticket is successful because it takes a social-media approach. Malcolm blogs, participates in discussion threads, and uses Twitter.”

    Top of the Ticket is successful because it is a good read. The rest is marketing and promotion.

    Didn’t we do just that on newspapers in the good ‘ol days?

    The botton line is that it is FREE!

    And, that, is the issue, the problem, on the Net.

    “Hey, buddy, can you spare a dime?”

  13. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 6 years ago .Reply

    Stu: You might enjoy reading this obit for Sandy Zane, a colorful reporter of the once-colorful San Francisco Chronicle. I was there while Sandy was a reporter (late ’80s to early ’90s), but our paths didn’t cross that much so I didn’t know him well.

    I bet Sandy wouldn’t like all this Twitter, podcast, Facebook stuff. But if you want a blast from the past, read his obit:

    http://is.gd/ijy5

    Though reading about Sandy, I do see similar qualities in some of our more outlandish bloggers. So I don’t think his spirit is gone.

    (BTW, Stu, I owe you an e-mail reply. Haven’t forgotten; just running behind.)

  14. Mark
    Mark 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve,

    Have you read Dave Chase’s blog entry on Alan Mutter’s site? I think the focus on content innovation is misplaced–the key is on the revenue side.

    So where are the analytics on marginal revenue vs. marginal cost on various revenue streams: on-line ads, on-line subscriptions, paper ads, paper subscriptions? With fully allocated costs to each revenue stream?

    A NYT exec says roughly 50% of ad inventory is network ads. You probably know better than I the discount of those over premium ads. The most profitable web site inventory has far more supply than demand. The marginal revenue for additional page views is low, and that is not going to change. It’s probably headed lower.

    The easiest way to reduce supply is to charge. I am surprised that so few people look to how Rupert Murdoch has decided to run his site. The common response is, “Well, the WSJ is a special brand” or “It only works because business people can expense it.” I don’t buy that.

    My bet is that local news is just as valuable (if not more!) of a commodity to people. Our local paper charges for on-line subscriptions, and always has.

    I wish some industry insider would look at and analyze marginal revenues and marginal costs of subscriptions vs. advertising. I expect the most profitable revenue innovation is to give people a good reason to pay for on-line subscriptions. This solution would probably require some pricing optimization analysis–most people don’t got to a newspaper web site everyday.

    A strategy of giving local readers enough value that they will pay seems like a much stronger revenue foundation than playing to the fickle and fast-changing on-line advertising market.

    Thanks,

  15. Reid Magney
    Reid Magney 6 years ago .Reply

    Hi Steve,

    Great discussion. I’m trying to apply your ideas about surviving newspaper sites to a local TV news operation, where I labored briefly before being laid off. Broadcast TV news is personality-driven, but stations’ Web sites haven’t done a good job of capturing that dynamic and extending it to more interactive platforms.
    Any thoughts?

  16. lorie
    lorie 6 years ago .Reply

    This advice is really going to help, thanks.

  17. Meridith
    Meridith 5 years ago .Reply

    Your model for the transition from print to online is promising! I hope to see it help online sites succeed. Though, I do wonder what will distinguish the journalist from the everyday blogger or news lover. It seems that with this new approach it will be easy to slip into low-quality journalism. I believe what you describe as a “multitasking digital journalist” could be the answer. It sure seems that the “star” journalists of the the next decade will be those who can put together exceptional multimedia content.

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