‘Newspaper upheaval isn’t cyclical, it’s tectonic’

RESTON, VIRGINIA: If America decides how to deal with its (mostly invented) threats from the secretive settings of the Central Intelligence Agency in pristine Langley, its newspapers are preparing for combat with their (mostly visible) foe from a similarly verdant setting not far from it, in Reston, Virginia.

CIA cooks up laboured names for its subversive operations (Phoenix, Infinite Justice et al), and the target is often the hapless other. But here, at the American Press Institute, Operation Newspaper Next leaves no room for confusion on who the target is.

The bazookas are trained at American newspapers, and the objective is to usher in a “regime-change” that will help them survive a threat that comes from netherworld.

Welcome to mission control of Newspaper Next, a project for the transformation of a vehicle of journalism whose obituary is being updated night and day, so much so that the grand ol’ man of American journalism Ben Bradlee says he is “flat-out sick” of hearing threats to journalism’s “dire extinction”.

The $3 million research and teaching project—or N2 as it is called, short for Newspaper Next—is a joint effort between API and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, Innosight, and seven newspaper partners.

And the way Steve Buttry, API’s director of tailored programs explains it, the writing is not just on the wall for American newspapers, it’s in their face if it hasn’t hit them already.

# Daily newspaper circulation has dropped 16 per cent, while the American population has grown 26 per cent. The percentage of parents buying a paper is 17 per cent. That’s a 33 per cent drop in circulation.

# Seven years ago, newspapers were no. 1 in advertising with 21 per cent of the share. Now they are behind even direct mail. Internet advertising on the other hand has doubled from 2 per cent to 4 per cent.

# Newspapers are being sold, merged or downsized even as the options become limitless for the reader

The (newspaper) market is being fragmented, our world is being disrupted, says Buttry during the course of a clinical presentation that has surely been delivered dozens of times before. The business cycle is not going to save newspapers. What is happening to papers is not cyclical but tectonic. The upheaval is permanent.

The threat, as API sees it, is largely from the internet. And Buttry and the Newspaper Next project make it clear that newspapers should not make the same mistake telegram companies made when the telephone arrived.

A Western Union internal telegram in 1876 reportedly said, “The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Last year, Western Union sent the last telegram.

Or the same mistake that fixed line phone companies made when cell phones appeared on the scene. When AT&T came up with wireless phones, Mckinsey said there was a total market of 900,000. Today, as many phones are sold per hour round the world.

So, the wise guys behind the NewspaperNext project say newspapers should make three changes if they are to confront the online threat.

1. Newspaper should change themselves: What is now a monolithic product should become a portfolio of products

2. Newspapers should change the way they view readers: Readers should become audiences/participants

3. Newspapers should change the way they view advertisers: Advertisers should become business customers

Many American newspapers have been there, done that, and all they have got is more bad news that readers are deserting them in droves. Just 14 per cent of Americans now get their news from print. So there’s nothing to show as yet that API has cracked the formula.

Maybe, API needs to seek the answer to a different set of questions: do newspapers in their present shape, size, content and above all, delivery mechanism, deserve to be saved at all. Hundreds of products, inventions, devices have perished in the course of history without as many tears being shed.

Sure, the newspaper is not a product. Maybe, it’s a way of life. But when newspapers in polythene covers lie untouched and unopened at noon in the driveway of American homes from Georgia to Michigan, and everywhere in between, maybe the reader is sending a simple message. That his newspaper, however credible, however comprehensive, however “objective”, makes little sense.

So, should API’s and N2’s “scientists” sit down to crack a way in which the paper is delivered so that the reader doesn’t get day before yesterday’s news every morning?

Maybe, it rolls off the toaster or the coffee machine as per his customised choices?

Maybe, it is waiting there in the toilet, leaving no chance for Joe Sixpack but to tear it off and read?

Even the guys who have all the answers have no answer.

Also read: What is Newspaper Next?

Loo York Times: All the news that’s print to flush

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