By Steve Outing
Writing a column (“Stop The Presses!“) for Editor & Publisher Online, where I’ve covered the intersection (perhaps I should call it a collision) of the Internet and newspapers since 1995, is the longest-running professional gig I’ve ever had. The only things in my life that have lasted longer are my marriage (21 years) and being a parent (17 years).
So it’s with sadness that I learned this morning that the Nielsen Co. is shutting down E&P after being unable to sell it along with its other publications. E&P’s roots go back to 1884 and it long was considered “the bible of the newspaper industry.” I can’t say that I’m surprised; indeed, the only surprise was that the magazine and website lasted this long, as did my monthly column. (Many other E&P columns by non-staff members were cut earlier on for budgetary reasons.)
If you’re expecting details from me, I don’t have many, since I am not nor ever have I been an E&P or Nielsen employee; my column has always been a freelance or contract arrangement, one of many things that I do around the digital-news space. So based here in Boulder, Colorado, I’ve seldom known the “inside dope” about what was happening in the New York office, and didn’t know in advance that this was coming. (Indeed, just yesterday I’d been faxed my contract to sign for next year, so my editors at E&P didn’t know, either. That’s one item to delete from my to-do list for today.)
I can tell you that things are up in the air in terms of what happens to the “Editor & Publisher” brand, but that its staff will be out of their offices by the end of the year. (“Happy Holidays, E&P gang! -Love, Nielsen Co.”)
I kept writing my E&P column for so long, I guess, because I came out of the newspaper business (from 1978 to 1993 I worked mostly at newspapers in Colorado and California) and maintained an affinity for newspapers and the brand of journalism they produce. In late 1993 when the Internet came onto the scene (that’s when the first web browser was introduced to the world), I viewed it as transformational — and expected that it could transform the newspaper industry; and with my prior experience and enthusiasm for the new online world I surmised that I might be able to help, by closing watching new online trends that could affect newspapers and identifying new technologies and trends that could be leveraged by newspapers.
Ah, if I’d only known then. … If only I’d realized that the newspaper culture was too mired in the muck of its own long history, and that its leaders would, for the most part, resist-resist-resist the rapid changes required by the evolving digital culture to do what needed to be done to survive. I might have taken the new route rather than trying to repave the old one with new materials, transforming a sleepy two-lane into a sleek new super-highway.
That’s not meant as a criticism of the digital-media folks that have toiled in the newspaper industry this last decade and a half, with the same mission as I had. Those fine and smart people on the inside, and people like me on the outside offering advice and ideas for surviving the digital revolution, generally saw the direction things should go. Alas, so often it was the top leaders who held back the digital pioneers and their crazy ideas for fear of hurting the cash cow that was the printed newspaper.
Indeed, that attitude still holds true at the top of many companies, it seems. A profound moment of disappointment — when I think my mind finally lost the last tiny shread of hope for the newspaper industry — was this summer, when during a reinveinting-news conference I had a few minutes for a private conversation with the CEO of one of the largest U.S. newspaper companies. He told me that his firm’s intention of putting up pay-walls at most of its newspaper websites was meant primarily as a strategy to drive more print revenues. He said he didn’t expect to earn much from the web side with the pay-wall strategy.
That same company (I’ll be polite and refrain from naming it) early this year had me do a small consulting job, to do some research on social-media directors at other news companies and determine if it was worth it for the company to create such a position at the corporate level. I came back with estimates of how other news companies had fared with a person in that position, including estimates of increased website traffic and additional revenues from increased social-media activity and initiatives. I also made the case that ignoring social media would be a huge mistake, because it is a huge part of the future of news.
You guessed it. I later heard from the interactive-division VP who hired me that it was decided (above his level) that the social-media position would not be created, because management couldn’t see enough of a ROI in the short term, and of course money was tight for creating new positions. I just shook my head in disbelief. But, again, I wasn’t surprised.
Writing my E&P column for so long, I’ve received plenty of accolades for identifying breaking trends and alerting newspaper digital managers of technologies that they should deploy and business models they should investigate. I’ve also gotten plenty of criticisms from journalists and publishers who I describe as “old school,” who thought that my ideas would hurt the industry by hurting print revenues.
I’ve also been asked, a lot lately, why I continue to “preach to people who obviously won’t listen to what you have to say?” That’s crossed my mind for quite a while, and in that respect it’s a bit of a relief to stop writing a column that’s targeted to newspaper leaders to offer them ideas for evolving into digital creatures. This “opportunity” of losing my column aimed at a newspaper-industry audience will allow me to write more broadly about the future of news and journalism, and the new news eco-system that is evolving to fill in the gaps left by dwindling old news media.
As many others have said, journalism isn’t in danger of extinction, but newspaper print editions are. That the industry could lose its dominant and oldest trade journal is another signal itself of many more newspapers’ demise or slide into irrelevancy.
I’ll keep covering the news industry and news digital trends in this blog. But you’ll see less of me cheerleading a newspaper industry that seems bent on self-destruction. If every newspaper would take digital opportunities as seriously as does the New York Times, which has a large technology staff to go along with its still-large editorial staff, then there’d be hope. But it’s the rare few newspapers in larger markets that will survive long term because they will adapt and innovate sufficiently, like the NYT. (Small-town papers have much more of a cushion against extinction.)
Finally, lest I appear to put all the blame on newspaper industry CEOs for their myopic vision, I feel that I let the newspaper industry down, as did E&P. I and they were not strident enough with our criticisms, apparently, or strong enough with our arguments, to convince newspapers’ top leaders that they needed to get on the digital path more quickly and more solidly. I end my E&P column thinking that I could and should have done more. But at the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed the many people I met in the newspaper industry, many of them innovators and visionaries.
I’ll be continuing to guide the news industry with my latest project, which is founding the Digital Media Test Kitchen at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I don’t even have a finished website to point you to yet, but we’ll debut soon.