Google Can’t Save Your Local Newspaper – But This Business Model Can
Newspapers are Dead. Ok, not quite dead but on life support.
According to Silicon Alley Insider so far this year:
- 105 newspapers have been shuttered.
- 10,000 newspaper jobs have been lost.
- Print ad sales fell 30% in Q1 ’09.
- 23 of the top 25 newspapers reported circulation declines between 7% and 20%
Therefore when I read Can Google Save Your Local Newspaper by Robert Cringely at CIO Magazine, I was surprised by his summary. In a nutshell Cringely believes that Google must provide more search weight towards the original source of the article (usually a newspaper) in order to properly drive traffic to the originating source. This may be a band-aid but will not solve the underlying problem of an outdated business model.
Google Labs is also pushing a new service called Fast Flip which ostensibly is helping print media adapt to the Google model of monetization. Google has partnered with 36 news publishers for the initial trial. The interface is nice, it’s like looking at the front page of a dozen newspapers all sorted by section, most viewed, or recommended. Yet still it’s just a user interface make over and not much more.
Herein lies the issue. Why recreate the print experience online?
The Print Media Runs into Competition
One of the early signs the newspaper industry was in trouble was the introduction of eBay and Craigslist and it’s impact on classified ad revenues. Unless you were internet illiterate you immediately saw the value of posting your used items for sale on these sites compared to your local newspaper because (1) it was less expensive and (2) you reached a global audience.
Seemingly stunned by the competition, the newspaper industry did little to respond. We still had ad revenue they told themselves. Yet, internet behemoth Google began to cut into that revenue stream as well. And still, little in the way of a response except a few vociferous print media journalists attacking bloggers, internet news sites and new content aggregators as “unprofessional, untrained, and fact skewing”.
But the world knew better and were not scared by the warnings.
A New Business and Monetization Model for Print Media
One of the major advantages of the internet is the ability for anyone to produce niche content that inevitably has an audience somewhere in the world. The other major advantage are the instant feedback loops that are created with the target audience. If the content is controversial, untrue or terrible, you’re going to hear about it. Similarly, great content is promoted globally by readers that can instantly extend your subscription base (for free!).
Instead of using services like Fast Flip that only help line Google’s ever deepening pockets, print media can develop a new model based on the concept of hyper-localization. In effect, extending the local newspaper business model to every residential block, commercial business sector, organized group, park, beach, or wherever there is a need for structured news. Think long tail journalism via niche topics and discussions that involve large and small communities of people.
The community becomes an extended journalist team for the local newspaper and is rewarded in turn by having access to frequently updated and more relevant content. This crowd sourced hyper-local niche content then becomes an area that local businesses can advertise in or participate in the discussion. Add mobile photo and GPS capabilities and an interesting hyper-local picture emerges – especially for advertisers.
By example, a local niche site (owned by the newspaper) about high school sports could be crowd sourced by the community. Imagine aggregating in one online site all of the Twitter tweets, blogs, comments on a Wiki for every high school football game. Parents and students now become the local media for the event. Yes the audience is narrow and small, but it’s very focused.
A local sports store can participate by sponsoring the niche site by tallying the statistics, providing live game commentary via Twitter, moderating the parent and student content and highlighting key plays in a game wrap up. The sports store is then rewarded by audience patronage and continued loyalty especially if they are entertaining.
For the local newspaper, they sell niche site sponsorships and advertising. Not only are they receiving free digital ink from long tail journalism, they are profiting from it (sound like a familiar business model – ahem Google). It’s a lot of work, but better than the alternative mentioned in the first sentence.
So how does a local newspaper begin down this digital road? The good news is that at last, there are a few well intentioned companies focused on helping print media move to the digital age. MindTouch has created a Collaborative Network Solution focused on crowd sourcing content and documentation. Microsoft Sharepoint has external solutions that can be built to handle this concept. Acquia the largest Drupal service provider has a solution that can help – note contact Warren Utt (and tell him I sent you).
Think the new business model is impossible or difficult to implement? Well, at least one site is already up and running. Whorunsgov.com a Washington Post site has recently launched and is experiencing tremendous traffic (Alexa: 45,109 as of the date of this article).
Print Media CEO Advice: Build your own hyper-local news platform. Start small and find early adopter sponsors that are Web 2.0 savvy. Encourage long tail journalism by appealing to the 10% of the local population willing to create content. Actively promote the early adopt
ers and encourage their efforts. It’s ok to make mistakes, but learn from them, figure out what works, and do it more. Don’t quit at the first sign of failure and stop waiting for the answer to appear.
As you can see by your subscription numbers, they’re heading straight down and it’s not going to reverse course. You’re stuck on an outdated dead tree platform that is not being used anymore.
By the time someone figures out the right answer, it’ll be too late. Get going.