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Now that the seas seem calm – launch the lifeboats

It was only last summer that researchers presenting a State of the (Canadian) Media report offered the cautious suggestion that newspapers' decades long slide in market penetration might finally have hit a "floor" or at least flattened for the foreseeable future in the 30 per cent neighbourhood.
Frankly, to me it sounded like whistling past the graveyard; an excuse for managers to keep their heads down and focus on cost containment while keeping one eye on the retirement clock. 

For newsrooms - now's the time to launch some lifeboats
Don't wait until you're sinking to launch your lifeboats

But to many it seemed a not unreasonable conclusion - especially in a year that revealed some real strengths in our economy, and signs of  recovery (albeit slender) in revenue and readership for newspapers, a recovery that's continued for the last two quarters of 2010. Maybe so-called structural economic changes to our industry were mere hype, a misinterpretation of the cyclic economic battering we all took as the housing and credit bubbles burst south of the border.
The report - by the Canadian Media Research Consortium - even uncovered some surprising improvements: time spent with all traditional media dropped between 2004 and 2007 - BUT it increased by ten percent for newspapers and magazines (from 4 to 4.4 hours per week).
Good times.
And then the Pew Research Center For the People and the Press kicked off the new year by giving the old media a kick in the teeth.
In their annual survey of which news sources Americans turn to, Pew reported that the internet finally overtook television  as the primary news source among 18-29 year olds and appears poised to surpass TV in all age categories within 3 years or so.
For newspapers this is old news. We ceded the crown to TV 30 years ago and then the internet lapped us (among 18-29 year-olds) back in 2002 - and among all age groups by 2007.
But there was one number in the report that gave me real pause and I think puts the lie to the hopes that we've reached some kind of floor or bottom: Among 50-64 year olds, after television, the internet was nearly equal to newspapers as a primary news source.
That sound you hear, ladies and gentlemen, is the "floor" joists splintering beneath us.
For 20 years we've consoled ourselves with the vain hope that young people would pick up the newspaper habit once they married, bought a house and settled down. It didn't happen. 
So for the past five years or so we've thrown our arms around the legs of the the long-lived baby boomers, that immense demographic bulge of  50-65 year-olds. You'll never leave us, we've sobbed.
They're leaving us.
My colleagues at Newspapers Canada beg to differ, and suggest that we should not confuse the two markets, that the Canadian news business is very different.
I'd agree that our businesses are different - we're healthier, have more stable corporate structures, less exposure to classified losses, and have suffered nowhere near the catastrophic declines in advertising revenues that American papers have seen in the past 2 years.
But so what?
I'd argue our readers, our audiences, are more similar than not. That if anything, past experience demonstrates that we adopt digital services more swiftly and painlessly than our southern neighbours.
I could not find truly comparable data for Canada - the closest is 2008 data from the Online Canadian and News study which didn't ask about primary news sources per se, but did ask about the source for specific new stories and found overall, no real difference between the internet and newspapers (16 per cent cited the internet and 17 per cent cited newspapers). Their age breakdown was too different to be useful.
So humour me - imagine for a minute that I'm right, that our core readership is finally, inexorably, slipping away, dropping our papers in the blue bin and propping their iPads against the milk jugs on the breakfast table.
What can we do?
In a word - research. And innovate. Okay that's two words. 
But I'm betting neither can be found as line items on your budget or in the budgets of any Canadian newsroom. Oh, some are doing it at the chain level, but do you have a SINGLE person in your newsroom responsible for creating new products, chasing new markets?
Clayton Christensen, the Harvard-based author of The Innovator's Dilema: When New Technologies  Cause Great Firms to Fail, said his resarch shows that among those that try, companies will fail four times on average before finding and creating innovative new products and services that adequately respond to the new technologies and companies that are disrupting their old economic models. 
What do you think the survival rate is for those that refuse to try?
Look into your newsroom. Think about those that are chafing at the bit, impatient with the old ways of doing things and always complaining about the web site or their digital tools. Imagine inviting those staff to suggest new products or services and then offering the winners two weeks paid time to research, package and pitch a plan for testing that new idea. 
That's not a floor or a plateau you've landed on - that's the deck of a listing ship. It's time to launch some boats.

Worth Visiting:
The Pew Research Center's Survey Report: 
Canadian Media Research Consortium's Canadian and Online News study: 
The CMRC's State of the Media Report (.pdf)

(photo from ADL999' flickr photostream, used under a creative commons attribution licence)

1 comment to Now that the seas seem calm – launch the lifeboats

  • I share your sense of pessimism about the future of the newspaper business. The industry has been hit with the perfect storm of destructive forces.

    Technological change has not only moved readers to on-line platforms, it has virtually eliminated the barriers to entry. Freed from the need of elaborate, costly printing and distribution system journalism no longer benefits from content generation economies of scale.

    Trying to replicate the full service newspaper model in an on-line world seems to be a losing proposition. There may be a few outlets such as the New York Times that have the brand equity and broad paper and on-line audiences to continue operating this way, but lower overhead niche content generation may represent a viable way forward.