Monday, December 22, 2008

Web? What web?

Newspapers have been in a long decline over 25 years, first with competition from electronic media and then, for the past decade, with the commoditization of information via the Internet. Publishers and owners — once used to spending the rents provided by their local monopolies — have now been choosing between bad options: cutting, selling or even closing their long-time cash cows.

The industry has split into two factions: those who embrace the Internet and those that just want it to go away. The former are desperately seeking new electronic delivery modalities and products, or even abandoning print altogether (and relegating the term “ink-stained wretches” to the dustbin of history). The latter are continuing to focus on killing trees, sometimes in combination with shutting off the electronic redistribution of their content that is fueling commoditization of their industry. These are tough choices, because neither strategy seems particularly promising.

On Sunday, NYT media columnist David Carr highlighted a tiny newspaper in Asburk Park, NJ. For NYT readers, Asbury Park needs no introduction: a small town 60 miles away on the Jersey Shore. For the rest of us, Asbury Park is the site of Bruce Springstein’s early career and in the title of his debut album.

Carr notes that the TriCityNews website has “has a little boilerplate about the product and lists ad rates, but nothing more.” The paper’s owner is defiant:

“Why would I put anything on the Web?” asked Dan Jacobson, the publisher and owner of the newspaper. “I don’t understand how putting content on the Web would do anything but help destroy our paper. Why should we give our readers any incentive whatsoever to not look at our content along with our advertisements, a large number of which are beautiful and cheap full-page ads?”
Local (if not hyperlocal) content has always been the most strategically defensible response to national electronic competitors. The problem is that the economies of scale work against highly local papers: the more focused the content, the more daunting the economics of paying that content. One possible future is that what we have left will be low-cost (if not schlocky) community papers that complement the TV stations and Google (or Yahoo) News.

Every time there’s a recession, newspapers merge or go out of business: this time, the 2009-2010 trough of the business cycle will be the perfect storm. About the only saving grace is that the newspapers that remain are the survivors of two decades of Darwinian elimination.

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