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September 24, 2007

Why be like the competition?

John Stoehr

John Dvorak, in this column for MarketWatch, asks an important question that I have asked myself on occasion: Why do newspapers strive to be like other newspapers?

In the marketplace of news, in which national and international news are available to anyone anytime, why do local newspapers, especially ones the size of the Savannah Morning News (circulation 50,000), continue to run news stories that everyone already knows about. Why is there so much redundancy in journalism? As Dvorak writes:

The only papers or news organizations that can expect to survive will be those with lots of original content available only at their individual sites. The operations that rely more on universally available news feeds will be at the mercy of a fickle public -- one that doesn't care where they read a particular story, especially if it is the exact same story with the exact same headline.

Why bother providing information that can be more easily accessed via CNN, et al.? What's the point of redundancy? What's the real value to the reader? Shouldn't newspapers be doing everything possible to not be like the others? Have we ever heard of branding?

At the same time, newspaper are cutting newsroom jobs, handicapping their ability to generate unique local content. They rely increasingly on wire stories, which are, of course, the kinds of stories everyone with internet access and 24/7 cable news already knows about.

Again, Dvorak:

The wire services used to provide local papers with a wide range of stories that local editors could use to enliven their news mix.

Over time, many newspaper owners saw the savings they could realize from loading up on wire stories while minimizing their original editorial content.

Once the Internet arrived, this model was dead, as the Net revealed that many newspapers weren't actually contributing anything new or unique. The fact that people all over the country subscribe to the New York Times, rather than to a local paper, says it all.

Granted, this is a business-minded approach to journalism, not one made by journalists. But in the absence of a business approach that works, perhaps this is one that should gain traction. In a marketplace in which there is so much same-y information, doesn't it make sense that the publication that offers interesting, long-form, investigative, one-of-a-kind reporting, design and mutli-media be the one people would naturally gravitate toward, because all that can't be found elsewhere?

The choice, it seems, is this: Either newspapers, especially small- to mid-sized papers, shift from redundancy to uniqueness or they inspired what Dvorak notes as the current phenomenon of "too many newspapers."

Once a reader hits a stale site, they're not likely to hit it again.

Why should they? There are now plenty of news sites to choose from. I would argue that there are too many newspapers.

The scene has changed from one of minimonopolies to a sector that's crowded and hypercompetitive.

Posted by John Stoehr at September 24, 2007 8:32 AM


Much of this discussion over the past several posts presupposes the average consumer is endlessly waiting for breaking news and is obsessed with that media which provides the best source.

I would submit that historically what most consumers wanted, in markets where there was more than one newspaper, was their favorite comic strips. I realize this is an unfamiliar concept to many people since newspapers have broken this important bond a long time ago for a variety of idiotic reasons, but I would like to cite a few examples.

Back in the 50's when the Washington Post bought out the Washington Herald which was a Joe McCarthy supporting newspaper, they kept the majority of their readers because they brought over all of their comics.

I forget the book where this was cited, but a long time later while in college when I stayed over at a friend's house, she insisted in the morning I get what was generally considered a journalistically inferior paper because of a certain comic strip. I was of course miffed a bit because of the journalism but mainly because I felt the comics in the other paper superior (due specifically to the previous citation) and finally, since I normally write about arts in my blog, this from the late Chicago arts critic Claudia Cassidy, apparently Gertrude Stein used to complain that she had to buy two copies of the International Herald Tribune because Picasso and his lover at the time both demanded to be the first one to read a strip called 'The Katzenjammer Kids".

I have heard other similar stories of much more recent vintage, but my point is that once upon a time not that long ago, most people read the front page and then dove for the comic strips. The papers as I mentioned started treating them like excess baggage and once it became a matter of getting just news newspapers lost to nearly everyone else.

By the way one of the problems with the so-called new media is that when people do searches they can gain a great deal of information about the subject for which they are looking, but what newspapers provided-back when they were written for those who were literate-was information you were looking for placed next to information you were not. You might search the paper for something in particular, but you then went on to read the rest of it and thereby gained information you didn't know you were interested in. The internet tends to work against this even while providing a great deal of depth and up-to the minute information on that which interests the individual searcher.

Posted by: david sokolec at September 24, 2007 7:22 PM

The real drawback for the arts, when it comes to the local-news-is-king business model that is coming to dominate the bigger dailies, is that it kills arts coverage.

Movies, TV, pop and classical music CDs, books -- all of that is, more or less corporate and nationwide. Ergo, in this scenario, unless there's sufficient local activity in those arts -- and frequently, there isn't -- then there's little reason for much of an arts staff or arts section.

The idea that, say, the local classical music critic might have something original to say about the latest Placido Domingo CD is not a consideration. Without enough of a local TV industry or theater community to bother with, those beats get killed or cobbled together under one arts writer-editor-critic or covered by wire stories.

As for the argument that people buy the NYTimes all over the country, and that's proof of Mr. Dvorak's thesis -- it's bullshit. Only people of a certain economic and educated kind buy the NYTimes all over the country. The Times deliberately set out to snare that audience, and the mantra used to be that the Times would sell basically within 5 miles (or 10 or whatever) of any place with a Saks store. In short, college-educated, upper-middle-class- to upper-class people are more alike from Florida to Oregon than they are like their blue-collar neighbors.

Many big dailies began to look alike because they were all striving to be the same thing -- the NYTimes. Mr. Dvorak would take it as evidence for his argument that, despite all the bewailing over the fate of newspapers, small-to-medium-sized dailies are generally doing very well, thank you. And he's right insofar as they stress local content.

But take a look at what those dailies do with arts coverage and see if that's anything you want to advocate.

Posted by: book/daddy at September 25, 2007 6:50 AM