Newspapers are Dying, Get Over It

The Seattle P-I went web only today, ending a 146 year run as a print newspaper. What is the key lesson to learn today? If anything it is that the current newspaper business model is unsustainable and building an online presence with the goal of supporting the print business is a loser, it prolongs death like amputating a leg one inch at a time.

I really like what Hearst is planning for the web Seattle P-I:

The new operation will be more than a newspaper online, Steven Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, said. The so-called “community platform” will feature breaking news, columns from prominent Seattle residents, community databases, photo galleries, 150 citizen bloggers and links to other journalistic outlets.

Imagine where they would be today if they started this process with a clean break from pint 2 or 3 years ago? This shift, from newspaper to information service, is as paradigm shifting as search was to web directory (think Yahoo vs. Google).

Newspapers have dealt with the technology shift by cutting costs rather than remaking their business, that much is clear as it has been said repeatedly over the years. Why has this taken so long to happen? Simply because business resists killing off the historical core business until well after it has become obsolete; it’s why Western Union run a telegram business until 2006, a full 26 years from when the revenues of telegrams were eclipsed by the money transfer business, it’s real business.

What Hearst is doing with the P-I is reinventing the newspaper to once again become local. I don’t need the SF Chronicle to read AP wire service reports or what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan today, I need the Chronicle to cover the local city council meeting where an increase in garbage rates was proposed and by “cover” I don’t mean sending a reporter down to the meeting to write 500 words on it either.

Hearst recognizes that printing a newspaper is not the business that the P-I is in, it is delivering information and if that is in the digital form only it should not matter. If the content is being created by the P-I or by people in the community who then use the P-I brand and channel to deliver it, then that’s a win all around.

Lastly, e-readers like the Kindle are beginning to emerge as a truly portable digital delivery mechanism through which publications can deliver a “copy” much like they did in the print era. We shall see how prominent this becomes but if the experience of my non-geek wife with her Kindle is any indication, the future is bright.

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