I live in the Chicago area where two newspaper dramas are playing out with different scenarios. At the Chicago Sun-Times, a nearly 20 percent staff cut was proposed in an effort to save $51 million. At the Chicago Tribune, new owner Sam Zell (who paid $8.2 billion for the deal) is trying to convince staffers he is “a direct agent of change” who will not interfere with content. Is that possible?
The buzz in local media is that this will be a one-newspaper town soon (not fun, I was part of the Dallas Times Herald before it bit the dust), but I think such premature projections miss the point. This is an opportunity fo the Sun-Times to reinvent itself, taking the best of the brand and making the content the commodity in a new delivery mode.
Naysayers say printed newspapers will soon all be extinct. Ink on paper is ancient. True. But saying there will no physical product is like saying because there is air travel available, no one will take the train. Or the bus. Or drive. Sure they will. According to journalism.org, 51 million people buy the newspaper everyday, and more than 124 million read it every day. (Must be people picking up all those leftover copies in Starbucks.)
As journalists and as consumers, the future is about cooperating with each other and looking to see what the audience wants when and why, not just blindly producing a product and hoping to God someone buys it and reads it. Can the Sun-Times evolve into the best informational news site locally? Can it drop walls between consumer and journalist and allow more citizen journalism locally and more long-form, invetsigative and enterprise work done by talented staff?
We have to think of newspaper identities as brands of content. We no longer think of National Public Radio as just a radio outlet. There are photo slideshows, video and text on the website. The New York Times is no longer just a text newspaper arriving with a thud on your doortsep Sundays. They offer consumers video, audio, blogs, photos, slideshows, the whole multimedia mix.
The myopic view of a newspaper company as only able to fit into one business model of a printed commodity with accompanying ads is not just old school, but all wrong. People don’t buy a newspaper to find out the score to the game anymore. They already know it by the time the paper is printed. Consumers look to the brand of a newspaper for its content and its style. So why not think about how that brand identity could migrate to another delivery mode or many delivery modes and be successful? Can we imagine newspapers as something other than ink on paper, and brainstorm for new ideas?