Tim McGuire of the Arizona State J-school gave a speech June 23 that gives quite possibly the most concrete vision of newspaper journalism’s future to date.
Yes, content is moving to the Web, he says, but “a lot of readers covet the prioritization offered by a newspaper.” In McGuire’s opinion, newspapers have another 20-25 years left in them, and he suggests that they do it really well for the audience that wants a print product.
He says: “I am convinced newspaper companies need to protect their newspaper franchises while they become digital entrepreneurs. I think there is money to be made in the next twenty years, but more importantly, I believe time is essential if our society is going to figure out how we are going to deal with the blow to democracy the loss of newspaper journalism would inflict.”
He goes on to suggest that we accept that the print product has a different mission than the electronic product. He says newspapers should stop chasing the elusive non-reader because it’s costing them core readers. Provide a great electronic product for a younger audience and those who prefer it, and provide a great print product for boomers and those who prefer it, he says. Yes, the latter audience will dwindle as members die, hence the 20-25-year lifespan.
He suggests reinvigorating the Sunday paper as THE mass product of the week (delivering inserts as well as news en masse) and downsizing papers for other days to meet news and advertising demands. He sees daily print products coming in different shapes and sizes, with a mix of niche products, too, and maybe even different business models for each day of the week.
“What I have just described represents a new delivery and sales reality …” he says. “Consistency of process has been crucial to your success. Yet, what I am describing will make every day’s delivery hugely different from the other. Each day’s product might be priced differently too. And, even more frightening, mix and match options might have to be offered to consumers.”
And what about connecting with the community? “Newspapers must convene all sorts of audiences in all sorts of imaginative ways. In a fractured media world it is incumbent on the democratic responsibilities of newspapers that newspapers lead, guide and direct everything from democracy to knitting clubs.”
While I generally find McGuire’s vision of the future fascinating, I quibble with that point. It still puts the journalist at the center of the universe, and I just don’t believe that’s going to work for connecting with our communities around content, especially online.
Our communities don’t want us to lead their knitting groups. They want us to acknowledge that the local knitters know more than we do about knitting, thank you very much, and let them be the experts on it and share their expertise with and through us.
As for delivering a great newspaper to the audience that wants it and a great electronic product to the audience that wants it, he’s right. Know your audience and give them what they want.
He concludes with some pretty blunt advice for all of us: “… if you can’t be a source of positive energy in your media workplace get out. I said there is no shame in ceding the future to the young and engaged. But, if you stay you must commit to being part of the solution and not a part of the problem.
“… If you are genuinely ready for the future, you cannot become one of the whiners Dean Singleton complains about. You must become an innovative doer ready to forget about the past and ready to build a new way for publishers to meet the needs of reader and advertiser customers.”
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