RaceTalk(s) with New Media Pundit Paul Gillin

By George

Racepoint was at the Bulldog Media Relations Summit & Conference this week in San Francisco. It was a fruitful visit as two of our campaigns won the 2008 Bulldog Awards Hall of Fame – a gold medal in the not-for-profit category for One Laptop Per Child and a silver medal in the competitive medicine, health and fitness category for NeuroLogica.

One of the highlights of the conference was a workshop by Paul Gillin, the former editor of Computerworld and now new media guru (and an author of The New Influencers). Paul also runs a blog I frequently read called: Newspaper Death Watch. Both Paul and I are fascinated by the changes the web has wrought on the newspaper industry. Paul was kind enough to answer some questions about newspapers and new media for RaceTalk.

RaceTalk: Newspaper circulation has been dropping since the 1980s. It’s easy to blame the Web, but this trend started before the Internet became ubiquitous. What is at the root of the failure of newspapers?

Paul: Rather than restating what I’ve already written, I’m going to adapt this answer from a recent essay on Newspaper Death Watch:

One factor was demographics. Circulation began sliding in the mid 1980s and demographic trends made it clear that young people didn’t read newspapers. A few papers saw catastrophe coming and made the leap to national circulation. They will survive the carnage.

The rest were addicted to the healthy and predictable profit margins of their business. Executives knew they were over-exposed to advertising from the shrinking department store industry and that their classified ad franchises were horribly vulnerable to online competitors. But why do anything? Their investors were fat and happy and there was no need to rock the boat.

Editorially, newspapers lost touch with their local audiences. I’ve become increasingly convinced that Watergate was the worst thing that ever happened to the newspaper industry. It transformed the role of the reporter from anonymous scribe to media celebrity. It distracted editors from the needs of their readers and diverted investment from productive local channels into wasteful global folly. For almost 30 years, the industry got away with these mistakes because it was the only game in town. Had executives acted a decade ago to dominate the online age, they might have saved themselves. But in this day of blogs, Wikipedia and Craigslist, newspapers don’t have a compelling value proposition.

RaceTalk: Now that the Internet has become a major source of news and especially breaking news — do you see newspapers surviving?

Paul: I don’t think that’s a yes or no answer. In my view, nearly all in major metropolitan dailies will collapse over the next 20 years. The struggles they are having right now with declining readership and competition for classified advertising will only intensify as reader demographics shift. Quoting from a recent New Yorker piece: “Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper. The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.”

However, I don’t believe this trend will hit all newspapers the same way. In fact, we could be poised on the brink of a rebirth of community newspapers. It’s clear that going local is the best strategy for survival, and community newspapers are benefiting from the lower overall costs of production and the efficiencies of partially outsourcing content to their readers. I think community newspapers will flourish in coming years because of their superior economics and direct engagement with their readers.

RaceTalk: I believe newspapers are well suited for capitalizing on the Internet. They have the resources, the experience, the readers and staff. So why haven’t they emerged as leaders on the Web? What are they doing wrong?

Paul: Newspapers are actually doing quite well on the Web. Newspaper executives like to point out that their readership is higher than ever, thanks to the surge of online interest. For readers who are looking for authoritative information, newspapers provide as good a service as anyone. They are, however, poorly attuned to the new needs of social media. Newspapers are addicted to the one-to-many model, in which a few editors decide what everyone else may read. They’re having a lot of trouble adapting to the Web 2.0 model, in which people recommend information resources to each other. So while newspapers will continue to do well what they’ve done the past, I’m not sure that they will lead the next round of Internet growth.

RaceTalk: What is the biggest misconception that newspapers have about the Web?

Paul: I think newspapers understand the Web pretty well, but they don’t understand the changing consumption habits of a new generation of readers. The whole idea of so-called community journalism makes them uncomfortable, even dismissive. They are wedded to the idea that only professional journalists can deliver quality journalism. However, I think we’re seeing that the dynamics of citizen publishing are much more complicated than that. Individuals with camera phones and Twitter accounts may briefly fill the role of journalists because they happen to be in the right place at the right time. Newspaper executives need to embrace this as an opportunity instead of dismissing it as a danger, as many have done. I like to point to Wikipedia as a model of journalism in the future. A large number of people working together can produce an impressive product, even if none is a so-called journalist. Editors don’t like this idea and I think they ignore it at their peril.

RaceTalk: Newspapers have gotten better online. What more do they need to do to attract readers?

Paul: I don’t think attracting readers is the big problem. Little things like including hyperlinks in articles and building in more customer feedback mechanisms would be nice. I think it’s a travesty that papers like the Boston Globe put their print articles online without adding the conventions of the Web, like linking to source material.

However, readership really isn’t a problem. The problem is the business model. One of the speakers at the Bulldog Reporter conference quoted a statistic I hadn’t seen before. He said that the value of a print subscriber to a newspaper is about $800, while the value of an online subscriber is about $11. Inability to monetize online readers is the root of the problem, and I don’t think that is a problem that’s unique to the newspaper industry. All online media entities struggle with this. The problem for newspapers is that their infrastructure cost requires them to monetize readers at a much higher level than they are able to sustain online.

RaceTalk: Blogs have been a news boom on the Web — but most bloggers don’t have the resources or skills for expository and investigative journalism. If newspapers collapse how are these important aspects of news gathering going to be fulfilled?

Paul: I think they’ll be fulfilled through a variety of mechanisms:

– A number of nonprofit and philanthropic news ventures have sprung up recently to provide targeted investigative journalism. I expect we’ll see more of this. National Public Radio plays a vital service, and there’s no reason to believe that reader-funded news organizations can’t fill some of newspapers’ traditional role.

– There will be successful news organizations that exist entirely online, that are profitable and that provide most of the traditional function of newspapers. Current examples include Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget, Silicon Valley Watcher and Talking Points Memo. In fact, the latter recently received the coveted George Polk Award for investigative journalism. This organization is providing quality investigative reporting but with a much smaller staff and much less overhead than a traditional newspaper. I think we will see many more examples of this, particularly as veteran journalists lose their jobs at newspapers and set up new outposts online.

– I also think we will redefine “investigative journalism.” Historically, this involves the efforts of a small group of reporters and editors seeking out facts and filtering them for their readers. I believe that in the future we will see the efforts of small teams complemented by contributions from the larger community of readers. This will be a different kind of investigative journalism, but I don’t believe it will be any less valuable. In fact, I think it could be significantly richer than what we get from newspapers today.

RaceTalk: What newspapers do you read now (online and off) and why?

Paul: I read lots of newspapers, but I read them only when they have information that is interesting to me. This is one of the important things to understand about changing reader habits. My news is delivered to me through a combination of Google Alerts, RSS feeds and recommendations from trusted sources. In some cases, I subscribe to search results on Technorati and have them delivered in my RSS reader. So my reading habits have shifted. A decade ago, a print product arrived on my desk and I scanned through it looking for items that interested me. Today, the items that interest me land on my desk and I click back to the source of that information. As a result, I read many more newspapers today than I ever have, but I start with the content rather than the branded publication.

RaceTalk: How do newspaper reporters and editors react to your Newspaper Death Watch blog?

Paul: Comments have been mostly positive, but I think that to some extent I’m preaching to the choir. I hear mostly from laid-off reporters and new media enthusiasts who agree with my point of view. I don’t think many working journalists take me seriously, and that’s to be expected. They have no interest in engaging with someone who thinks that their business has no future.

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