Saving newspapers: Less is more, part 2

April 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

More about how to save newspapers today in Jon Freidman’s Marketwatch column. Pundits Larry Kramer, Laura Rich Fine and Nathan Richardson, all credentialed new media-types, argue collectively that newspapers need to have the gumption to charge readers for their products. Historically, they have not had that gumption. This is true. But, what should they charge? Today it is a token. If it is to be financially relevant to the business it means the cost of a newspaper will skyrocket. And/or, the newspaper product will shrink to fit a cost that is perhaps only modestly more than what people pay now. I paid $2.00 for the Wall Street Journal yesterday in the Boston airport. The New York Times, delivered free to my hotel room do0r this morning, has a cover price of $1.50. It is four sections and 90 pages deep, which just has to be (ridicuously) expensive. What could we expect if these properties assigned a more realistic price to their daily products, one that covered all the costs of ink and paper and distribution, for instance? $4.00? $5.00? $10?

One thing that would drop as a result of a price increase is the free hotel distribution, which can add up to a substantial portion of a newspaper’s daily circulation. But the fear – and reality – has always been, of course, that raising newstand prices on newspapers would cause the circulation to crumble, which would starve the advertising side. Okay, but so what? Newspapers need to act very quickly to find their core audience – that constituency that will pay almost any price for the product. A pack of cigarettes today, I am informed, costs over $10. Plenty of people still smoke. It’s helps that cigarettes are addicting, but so are newspapers to some. A small, deeply dedicated audience is a marketers dream – or ought to be. If they want to charge more, newspapers need to retreat to within those dedicated audience boundaries and make a big deal to advertisers of the fact that people are willing to pay a lot for the privilege of receiving their newspaper.

Or not. Michael Kinsley, writing a couple of weeks ago in the Washington Post, talked about life after newspapers arguing that, sad as it may be, their time may have come and gone. Quoting Joseph Shumpeter he wrote, “Capitalism is a ‘perennial gale of creative destruction.’ Industries come and go.” Newspapers, he suggests - not unreasonably - are in the “go” part of the cycle.

Yes, but there are vital lessons in the plight of newspapers for all media, including online. The conditions of newspapers, after all, have been wrought by the same media intelligentsia that has dominated online. Their thoughts and actions online have been driven by the sames thoughts and actions that drove newspapers (and magazines and television) for years: a desire for too much audience.

Which leads us back to comments made in this space earlier this week: less is more.

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