Thursday, June 11, 2009

The future of news: Tough it out

Have newspapers forgotten how to sell themselves?

A century ago, newspapers were literally beating competitors. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Examiner hired thugs to rough up their rivals, giving gangsters Dion O'Banion and Bugs Moran their felonious start. Fourteen news dealers were murdered in Chicago's circulation wars.

These days newspapers are only being studied to death. (Some of these studies are produced at USC and Penn colleges funded by heirs of Moses Annnberg, who hired O'Banion's sluggers.)

This weekend in Chicago there's a conference at Columbia College on the future of news (not the first in Chicago). On Wednesday came a report on what Chicago nonprofit agencies think of online news. The Tribune's media critic read the study and concluded they wanted something like mainstream media.

And Northwestern University the same day launched a website for collaborations between students in journalism and engineering, not the kind of collusion that was O'Banion's specialty. Broadly stated, all this effort starts from a single premise: The daily newspaper's profits are eroding, and new business models are slow to take hold. People in the media business can fill their schedule with many earnest panel discussions of the grave effect this will have on society.

Outside observers might conclude this is another example of media bias. Bigger companies than the Tribune and Sun-Times are failing, and there are few signs of a compulsion to examine whether the automobile is obsolete or if there's any future in banking. Perhaps this is a shared preoccupation of the media and the foundations that study civic progress. Their endowments are under the same pressures as are newsroom budgets.

The days of a dozen Chicago dailies are ancient history, and now companies that held a comfortable local monopoly have a worldwide web of competitors at their door. Welcome to my world. For a dozen years now I've worked in online media, and for more than a dozen years before that at one of the nation's few underdog print dailies.

Employing street gangs to gain market share is no longer an option. Marketers now try to understand their customers' problems and how they can be part of the solution. Newspapers of course have studied this too, and have identified a half-dozen needs that newspapers meet:


  • Enlighten the audience on issues they find important.

  • Educate consumers to make better decisions.

  • Enrich them with time-saving or money-making ideas.

  • Entertain them or ward off boredom.

  • Engage people who share interests or views.

  • Empower them to act on things that matter.



None of these are exclusive properties of newspapers but they're all powerful motivations. If news enterprises have to work harder these days to justify their worth, they're in good company. They can start by convincing themselves of their staying power.

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