According to economic data the newspaper industry is the fastest shrinking industry in the United States.   I personally experienced the shrinkage in 2008 when advertising design was outsourced to a company with offices in the Philippines and India.  As we rolled out the final phase of our outsourced project I was offered a buyout.  Since then many more people have been offered and given buyouts.  I guess I could complain about a raw deal and whine about my plight, but I don’t see the advantage in doing so.  Instead I’d like to look at the industry and ask a few questions.  Maybe offer a few suggestions.  But first the flip side of this news, the internet is the fastest growing industry and online publishing the second fastest growing industry.  So what does this all mean?

I strongly believe newspaper publishing begin their decline when they decided to model themselves after USA Today.  Long stories were replaced with small quick read stories.  The writing was dumbed down so a less educated person could read it.  Focus shifted from local news to national and international news.  In many cases local news was replaced with local sports.  The problem with this model, I can get that news anywhere.  Why not buy USA Today?  I can watch it on television or pick it up online.  But what I can’t get local news as easy.

Perhaps local news is looked down upon as a lesser beat than national or international news.  More than likely someone realized that news over a wire means you can cut your writing staff.  If you don’t have as many people writing perhaps you can also cut a few copy editors.  I mean those wire stories are basically ready to publish, right.  Not really.  The ironic part is many readers want local news.  Once local news was deemed bottom-rung journalism, people looked elsewhere for the content they wanted.  In my hometown that meant free weeklies and online magazines were able to get a foothold on content and advertising.  It was all down hill from that point.

How do we save the newspaper industry?  Should it be saved?  Perhaps the time of newspapers has come and gone.  I don’t think that’s the case.  But they will have to rethink and retool if they are going to be relevant in the future.  Can a print product and online product coexist?  Yes they can.  In fact they can flourish.  Here are a few ideas to make that happen.

First, newspapers have to focus on local news.  I’m not talking about obits, a community calendar and a special feature every now an then.  I’m talking real local news presented in a well thought out format.  So you will have to hire more journalists and more copy editors.  Perhaps you could use freelance writers.  But you will need more local content on your printed page.  Please don’t give more space to local sports.  Every town has a school board that meets regularly.  How are they going to deal with new education guidelines. What about the pink slime controversy?  Do schools in the district use pink slime products, if so which ones?  How about budget cuts to services, such as police, fire and garbage collection?  There are lots of stories out there.  But lets not forget that grannies and grandpas read the paper and would like nothing more than to clip out a story about little Johnny or little Susie winning an award.  Why not cover those stories as well?

Second, stop giving away your product for free on the internet.  Why should I buy a paper when I can get most of its content online?  This is a touchy area.  On the one hand you have to have an online product, on the other you also have to have a print product.  They shouldn’t be competing against each other.  They should be enhancing each other.  Why not use Twitter and Facebook to distribute small headlines that drive people to your website.  Use your website to direct people to a related but different stories on your print product.  Likewise use your print product to direct people to additional resources online. Then figure out a monetization model that is affordable and attractive.

Finally, the industry has to stop moving in lockstep with each other.  One model might not work for every newspaper.  There certainly is room for variance, trial and error.  I should suggest newspapers start encouraging their staff to practice rapid prototyping with their online product.  Try something, within a week or two you’ll know if it’s going to work.  If not, try something else.  There is absolutely no reason to do the same thing at every paper.  I keep hearing people talking about online advertising as the answer.  The people suggesting this couldn’t be more wrong.  I suggest they start reading about permission marketing.  Their online readers are not going to pay much attention to online ads.

In my opinion the newspaper industry needs to save newsprint.  It serves a vital role in the community.  But they have to be willing to change and change quickly.  It’s important to realize that your main product is going to be online.  We live in a fast paced society.  Yesterday’s news is already incredibly stale.  There are so many things competing for your reader’s attention.  You have a small window to get attention and retain their attention.  So use the tools that do that.  Stop pining over a bygone era.  Embrace the new one.

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