Thursday, July 5, 2012

Are Local Newspapers Finally Facing The Proverbial Tar Pit?

Apparently, the Times-Piciyune in Louisana, one of the state's premiere newspapers, is moving to a three day a week publication schedule. In print for a staggering 175 years, the paper has acknowledged the necessity of change. This move is driven by economics and the politics are against it. As part of the the rollback, the paper's ownership is promising that they will enhance their online presence (clearly in an effort to placate those that feel an important "voice" in the region is being muted, while attending to the hemmoraging logistic cost of producing and disseminating a "daily" in today's marketplace).

The squeeze play is on! Even if Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffet believe newspapers are an (undervalued) asset worth saving, the marketplace seems to beg to differ. How we as consumers are driving this crossroad is something worth contemplation and discussion. In fact, the reality got me to give serious thought towards my consumption and subscription habits. My analysis leads me to have sympathy towards the publishing community; while applauding the democrazation, and globalization of news.....

Ubiquitous internet access, coupled with an abundance of social network feeds, Apps, and easy to use blogging tools, has redirected many people's information access. Across flyover country, fewer and fewer neighbors begin their day coffee cup in hand strolling out the front yard in search of the local daily which the neighborhood "paperboy" has deposited (hopefully on or near your doorstep).

A couple of months ago, I gave my impressions regarding magazine distribution changes taking place in, "A Tale of Two Magazines. Magazines Take Different Approaches to Digital Publication."  National print magazines are typically consumed differently than local dailies, but the challenging economics of publication and distribution are more imposing for local papers. Daily delivery and twenty-four hour news cycles create more challenge. Local newspaper consumers rightly demand unique local content....

Increasingly, my local paper provides less meaningful local insight while feeding off the Reuters, AP, and select national paper storylines to fill pages (often a day after these national stories break). In many ways Craigslist began the descent of local papers by redefining lucrative classified advertising. This "overnight" transformation should have served as the clarion call for papers to reimagine themselves. It seems to me the loss of the low hanging advertising fruit only added to denial.....

How do you consume news today? Increasingly, I rely upon aggregation services such as Zite, Pulse and FlipBoard. All of these companies rely upon RSS feeds (or other means of providing streams of information). A number of these the feeds I regularly consume are derived from information sources I may have explicitly paid for just a few years ago. (For a more complete discussion of these applications, please refer to this earlier post.)

The WSJ shields online content  unless you
pay  (potentially multiple times!).

Many newspapers, including one notable "offender" in my mind, a Murdoch holding, the Wall Street Journal, has elected to paywall its information,with only passing success. In the case of the WSJ, even paying subscribers of print content are asked to pay substantial incremental fees for online access to identical content. By creating a gauntlet requiring "law abiding" readers to pay for their content multiple times across multiple platforms, they are alienating some users and not focusing all of their energies on adding value to non-print information streams.

In my mind, there is a very real need for quality local reporting across our country. I rely on national online and conventional sources, including the Wall Street Journal, for the bulk of my news but there are times when local events are so compelling I want to learn more. At these moments I am "forced" to rely on the sole remaining daily in this marketplace, The Tennessean. Candidly, I don't think this publication is particularly great in terms of coverage, fairness, or layout, but it is the sole remaining daily "voice" in this region. (There exists a good free alternative The Nashville Scene, but it isn't published as regularly and isn't as widely distributed at this point.)

I actually find it more than a little ironic that the homeless in this area seem to distribute their $1.00 publication (printed monthly but available seemingly 24/7 at nearly every streetcorner) with greater efficiency than the venerable Tennessean. Perhaps they should incentify this "sales force" to disseminate daily papers and forgo continued direct home delivery....

In all seriousness, I don't know what the answer is but the Piciyune is another canary in the mine! More local papers are going to succomb unless they embrace a new business model. A model based on online distribution, new advertising (and subscription) realities and a real concentrated focus on balanced reporting of  important local events. Leave the national guys to report global stories, feel good pieces, and the crossword. We all still need and want local coverage and local issues still present themselves seven days a week.

Do  you still subscribe to your local paper? Is it an important news source in your world or would the demise of your city's paper go all but unnoticed? If you do believe a local paper performs some services of value, what do you think they need to do to survive? Do you know of a local/regional paper with a truly good online delivery model? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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