New Thinking, Not Kindle, Will Save Newspapers

The Kindle won't save newspapers, nor will any other technology save them, as long as they're run by the same people who are now running them (into the ground).
The Kindle won't save newspapers, nor will any other technology save them, as long as they're run by the same people who are now running them (into the ground).I say this with all the love in the world for newspapers, and as someone who grew up in the print world and who, I have to admit, once shared in what Jason Pontin calls the "mild contempt for readers" we were all trained to have.

Think about it: publishing may be the only business run by people with contempt for their customers (and that includes the dirty advertisers they're ethically required to ignore) and disdain for market research, producing content they're not sure anyone wants, at a seemingly arbitrary price.

Newspaper publishers continue to create Web sites that look like their print products, convinced of the importance of the front page and categories even though everyone knows that most people don't use categories to navigate sites and rarely even see the home page. Instead, people use this thing called search. (Paradoxically, editors try to ram search engine optimization -- Joe Wilcox calls it "search engine obsession" -- down the throats of writers and editors unwilling to sacrifice clever writing on the altar of Google keywords.)

Distributing newspapers via the Kindle may bring publishers an extra revenue stream in the short term, but it won't save them because they've already gotten it wrong from the get-go.

Three newspapers will offer a reduced price on the Kindle DX in exchange for a long-term subscription: The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. These offers will be available starting this summer in areas where home delivery of those papers is not available.

So if you live in New York, no deal.

Once again, publishers want to use technology as a band-aid to their failing business model, rather than as an opportunity to revolutionize it. If anything, they remind me of legacy software vendors who, faced with competition from software delivered over the Internet, rejiggered their products to "also" work on the Web. Those vendors failed because they didn't make changes to the architecture of the application, or to their business models, that were necessary to offer customers a workable product while allowing them to sell their services at profitable margins. Yes, I'm saying that newspapers are the next Seibel.

The sad thing is, we have the technology.

Start with print-on-demand (POD). Newspapers could invest in POD kiosks in strategic locations (libraries, train stations and airports could be a start) where people could print specific articles or entire sections for nominal prices. Better yet, publishers could invest in the printers together, and throw in the ability for readers to pick articles from different papers in the consortium (using technology from SharedBook). Allow readers to do the same thing online or on an electronic reader, only allow them the choice of either subscribing or paying by the drink by making micropayments using the balance from a virtual account. (Publishers could even make this fun by creating a virtual currency like Linden Dollars or Sheckles or whatever seems cute and approachable. In other words, change the customer -- yeah, readers are customers -- experience.)

Technology can also be leveraged to give advertisers (yeah, they're important too) better value for their dollars, by matching content to the right ads. This would free reporters from having to worry about writing for a particular advertiser or category while helping advertisers get their message in front of the right readers. Technology can also be used to literally connect print to the Web.

Sadly, though, the newspapers that are failing (and many aren't) are the ones trapped by their legacies of vice presidents, section editors, J-school graduates and print-centric ad sales teams. Some would like to change, but can't bring themselves to tear down the walls of their prison.

They can't bear the idea of collaborating with their rivals, even if it would save them, and are unwilling to forgo the trappings of success that their profession offers (until it becomes extinct).

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing