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The newspaper industry must change, or become yesterday's news

Mike Elgan | March 26, 2012
Mobile technology and the Internet are transforming news. Whether newspapers are involved is up to them, writes columnist Mike Elgan.

In fact, the whole model of what a newspaper is and how it's put together is perfectly antiquated and obsolete, a throwback to the telegraph era.

Before radio, newspapers held a near monopoly on the delivery of information about events in the world, the nation and local communities. In the last century, newspapers fulfilled a wide variety of other roles, offering public notices of every description, plus opinions, games (like crossword puzzles) weather forecasts, arts reviews, display advertising, classified ads, calendars of events and even serialized fiction.

Newspapers were the indispensable, all-purpose information source for educated citizens.

Today, that description is no longer applicable to newspapers. Instead, it applies to the Internet. But all the myriad roles that newspapers played are each handled by separate organizations online. Game sites offer games. Weather sites offer weather. Craigslist and other such sites offer classifieds. Advertising networks sell and place the ads, and so on.

The transition is not just from paper to electronic media, but from doing everything to doing only one thing. Unfortunately, that doesn't work from a business perspective. Display and classified ads were where the money came from, in addition to subscription revenue.

In Internet parlance, news attracted eyeballs to newspapers and advertisements monetized those eyeballs.

In the electronic era, newspaper companies are doing the cost part, but other companies are doing the revenue part. And that's why newspaper companies think they're in trouble. But they're wrong.

Newspapers fail because they're inefficient

At the time I was writing this column, Google News offered 3,436 stories about the opening of the movie Hunger Games this weekend. Of course, many of those are copies of stories disseminated by news syndicates, or versions articles that have otherwise been repurposed from other sources. But there's little doubt that at least several hundred separate news organizations devoted reporting, writing, editing and other resources to that story, repeating the exact same short list of facts about the movie. Hundreds of writers, hundreds of editors, hundreds of copy editors and hundreds of Web production staffers were all paid when five or 10 of each would have done the trick.

If the pizza industry worked this way, you'd order a pizza and 300 delivery people from 300 restaurants would show up at your door in 30 minutes or less. You'd pick one, and Google would be paid a dollar. The restaurants would have a hard time staying in business.

Worst of all, the radical duplication of effort in the newspaper industry results in an inferior product. Hundreds or thousands of newspapers are each trying to cover the same top 100 stories every day, while tens of thousands of stories go unreported. Instead of spending their talents and energies chasing down original or unique stories, reporters are competing with each other to cover the exact same stories.

 

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