News Leadership 3.0

December 04, 2008

The newspaper is a means to transition. But it’s no longer an end unto itself

The printed newspaper isn’t going to vanish right away. But smart newsroom leaders need to shove it from the newsroom’s center stage

I confess I am befuddled when I hear suggestions that print newspapers should simply stop printing and build a new business online. I think a lot of editors would love the idea of a fresh start. But walking away form 90 percent of revenue—and the employees and reporting it still pays for—seems like a harsh course.
Still, the fundamental attitude in newsrooms about the print newspaper needs to change, and indications are it has not happened—is not happening—quickly enough.
What should that attitude be? Steve Outing offered a good compendium of action steps for newspapers (good ideas that have been aired before and, unfortunately, not vigorously followed). Here are Outing’s key points about print:

- Print edition: Don’t bother chasing young people
- Print edition: Focus on the core demographic
- Guide older print loyalists to a life online
- Reduce the number of print editions

As this list suggests, the place of the print product in the hearts and minds of established news organizations has to change radically—from one of where the printed newspaper is at the forefront to a model in which any print product serves an important but more limited role.

Here are my standards for a print newspaper:
1. Niche: It has a very specific role for a very specific audience.
2. Unique: It engages key audiences in ways that other platforms cannot, at least for the time being.
3. Resources: It pays for itself and then some so it helps fuel the transition.
4. Transition: It is a means to a new end, not an end it itself.

The last point may be the key for thinking in the newsroom: The print newspaper is a smaller and smaller piece of the action. Decisions about resources for the newspaper become less about how to make the product perfect and more about the effectiveness of the product either in driving revenue or transitioning the newsroom and the audience online. (Please don’t take this as suggesting the print product can be crappy. But it can be less labored.)

That attitudinal shift—fostered by smart leadership—could be a game-changer in newsrooms that are still more intensively focused on print than they are on the very different future that is already here for media consumers.

I’ve had conversations recently with newspaper editors who are testing different approaches to print that fit the new paradigm. One is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is experimenting with a new approach to its Sunday newspaper. The other is The Wichita Eagle, where the editor decided moving online was more important than a beloved daily print section. A third is The Tampa Tribune, where “audience editors” put platforms on an equal footing at the front end of the journalism. I’ll post about those approaches in the coming days.



I worked in newspapers for 25 years. The last 10, I was the top editor at three successive mid-size dailies.

This fall for the first time in my entire life I’ve been without a daily newspaper delivered to my home. I first canceled the daily and then when the Sunday blew around on the lawn causing my grumpy neighbor to complain, I canceled it too. It felt funny. Like I was sort of a traitor, but I haven’t missed it.

So from the viewpoint of a back-slid newspaper evangelist, I have a couple of thoughts.

* I’m subscriber to Angie’s List, which costs me $57 per year. It’s nothing more than a services directory, which newspapers have run forever, with a couple of twists. Customers pay while service people don’t. Customers rate the service people in report card fashion. It’s useful and Angie doesn’t really bring anything to the party that newspapers couldn’t. But newspapers—at least here in Detroit—haven’t tried it. In my observation, they haven’t tried much except cutbacks.

* I got rid of the local weekly two years ago when the metro daily bought it and it stopped carrying the news I cared about in favor of advertorial and canned columns. I’d still be an enthusiastic subscriber if the ONLY things the local weekly provided were the crime log, a local calendar, a list of road repairs, all the property transfers and a map that identified construction projects. It doesn’t seem like much to ask in return for loyalty

* Paper is a pain. Having a paper delivered identifies when I’m not at home (which is often) and makes me feel vulnerable. Plus, because of recycling laws, paper is an annoyance to get rid of and in at least one place I have lived, an extra expense.

* Circulation departments are run on a wing and a prayer. We spend a few months a year at a vacation home that is still in the delivery area of our local paper, but during the last two years while we were still subscribers, we didn’t get the paper during those months because making the address switch was too confusing for the circulators.

* Even when there is something good in the paper, I don’t know about it.  Everything else I subscribe to—free or paid—sends me regular reminders and other promotional material telling me what’s upcoming and why I ought to pay attention. The only time I heard from the newspaper is when it sent the bill.


Very well written article. You really speak from your heart.
Waiting for your next one.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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