Woe Is The Print Edition

Business reporter Neil Irwin wrote an interesting post for the Washington Post’s internal critique board, in which he laments the future of newspapers and makes a plug for further investment in the Post’s website. (Oh yeah, he also reviews the actual paper, but mostly with lines like this: “Any front page with man-on-chimp sex is a pretty good front page, if you ask me.”)

“I realize that it is no longer fashionable to begin a critique with a mini-essay about The Future of the Newspaper. But I never wrote a critique when they first launched, and can’t help myself now. If it bores you, skip ahead.

A lot of us have been down in the dumps about the paper’s future. Losing 4 percent of your circulation each year and watching as much of the place’s institutional memory takes a buyout will do that to you. But, as much as I’d prefer that our circulation be rising, and as sad as it will be to see many of my favorite bylines disappear, I think the gallows humor around here the last year is overwrought.

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Imagine a world with no newspapers. Two guys go in with presentations for a wealthy investor. “I have this plan, see,” explains the first one. “I’m going to hire hundreds of people to find out what happens every day, write about it, edit those articles, take photographs and put it all together into a compelling package.

“Then in the middle of the night, we’ll have another army of people, a thousand of them, scurrying around to print the whole thing”

“On what?” asks the investor.

“On paper, of course. Oh, did I mention that we’ll have to buy $230 million worth of printing presses, plus the land to put them on, and so many tons of newsprint that they’ll bring it in on barges. Anyway, after we print them, yet another army of people, working at obscenely early hours of the morning, will take these printed compilations of the news, drive them to everyone’s house, and drop off a copy. They’ll even try not to throw them into the bushes, with mixed success.”

“How the heck will we pay for those presses and all that paper and all those workers?” the investor asks, staring incredulously.

“Oh, easy. We’ll have advertisements in the paper. We’ll get car dealers to describe the cars they have for sale. People trying to hire someone will run help wanted notices, page after page of them. And we’ll have big splashy ads from department stores.”

“Including Wal-Mart and Target?”

“Well, no, they don’t really cotton to this kind of marketing strategy. But Macy’s and Hecht’s, certainly.”

“Haven’t they merged?”

“Well, yes, but . . .”

“Hmmm. And these people buying help wanted ads and car ads and such. Why would they advertise with us, when most of the readers aren’t looking for a job or to buy a car at any given moment? And wouldn’t they have a hard time even knowing how many people actually saw their ad”

“Simple: Because they have to. We’ll have the broadest reach, and they’ll have no real other choice.”

The investor needs no time to mull this one. “Well, um, thanks. Good luck with this. It’s a very, um, intriguing idea.” he says.

Then a second entrepreneur walks through the door. “So,” he explains, “We hire a bunch of people to report the news of the day.”

“I feel like I’ve heard this before,” moans the investor.

“Nah, just hold on a minute. When something interesting or newsworthy happens, we load up an article about it onto a computer server, plus maybe pictures, an audio clip, some video, even the actual documents on which the story was based. When people want to know about the news, they go onto their computer and can see, in vivid color, all this information. It costs us virtually nothing to deliver. Oh, and the readers can come from anywhere, not just in our immediate geographical region. And before long, there will probably be cheap, light, tablet computers that let them read it on the Metro or the toilet, too.”

“And how do we pay for all this server capacity and the people who gather all this information?” asks the investor, still wary from his last visitor.

“Before you read the article, an advertisement pops up, complete with video, audio, and interactive components. The best part is, before readers can look at an article, we’ll make them tell us where they live, how old they are, and how much money they make. That way, advertisers can show ads to exactly the people they’re trying to sell to. We’ll also have help wanted and real estate and automobile ads. But those, rather than requiring that you flip through page after page of paper, will let you go straight exactly what you’re looking for. The advertisers will be willing to pay more than they do in other forms of media, because they know that the only paying to show their ads to people who might actually buy their product.”

The investor smiles. “I think we may just have something to work with here,” he says.

The point of all this is simply that the print newspaper business model has evolved over hundreds of years. It makes a lot more money than our Web site now, but as we get better about presenting information online, and advertisers get better at figuring out how to use online ads to increase sales, there’s a lot of promise. More, I would argue, than print has ever had. Print’s advantage is simply that newspapers and their advertisers have had centuries of trial and error to find out what works. Give the Web some time, and it could be even more lucrative for Post shareholders than the newspaper is now, and lead the company to employ more journalists like us to bring in those readers.

That doesn’t make it automatic that things will work that way. And maybe this atmosphere of desperation and fear can even be a good thing, if it forces us into tough changes that will make both the Web site and print edition a more compelling product. In other words, maybe the way to ensure the newspaper has a future is live in great fear about whether the newspaper has a future. Count me in the camp of the optimists, though.