Monday, March 31, 2008

Newspapers, mental blinders, and business models

My local paper is making some radical changes in what they do. The accent is on “local” with national and international news a secondary offering.

The editor put it this way in her Sunday column:

Starting Monday, local news leads off the paper, and national/world news will take the back seat.

Overall, that seems like a smart idea. It’s a solution media bloggers have been promoting for several years. It lets newspapers compete in an arena where they have a comparative advantage over cable TV and the internet.

Basic marketing stuff; reposition your product so you can leverage a competitive advantage. So far, so good.

If there is a worm in the apple, it lies in the mental blinders journalists wear, blinders that are rooted in the myths that adhere to journalistic culture. Simply put, what journalists do differs sharply from what they think they do.

That divergence shows up later in her column, in a throwaway piece of self-congratulatory boilerplate:

It’s not for nothing that some wise person said a long time ago that publishing a newspaper means inventing an entirely new product from scratch every single day. A car manufacturer can’t say that and could you imagine what it would be like to drive a vehicle produced that way? But you can’t imagine publishing a vital newspaper on an assembly line.

That sounds nice, but it is clearly untrue. Putting out a daily paper involves a lot of rote activity. Nor do readers expect an “entirely new product” each morning.

On the latter point, McLuhan said it best:

People don’t actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath.

On the production side, Scott Shane of The New York Times offers a decidedly unheroic view of his craft:

A typical daily reporter on deadline calls a couple of people and slaps something into the paper the next day.

From this perspective, the problem for a local newspaper editor is very similar to those faced by a manager of an industrial concern. In a nutshell, how do you manage a group of employees doing boring work for low pay so that you can make a product customers will pay for?

See also:

The newspaper today and tomorrow

UPDATE:Robert Stacy McCain lays out the grim economics of the modern newsroom:
Honing the ax

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