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‘Newspaper companies that will survive won’t consider themselves newspaper companies’

Publisher Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News wrote an interesting memo to his staff recently that has made its way to Jim Romanesko’s blog at Poynter.org. It’s about the future of the newspaper business … or, as he might call it, the local media business. If you have a few minutes, give it a read. It’s excellent. Brought back members of quite a few mid-decade discussions at the Lincoln Journal Star between we futurists and the eyebrow-raising skeptics.

If you’d like the Cliffs’ Notes version, here ’tis:

– Newspapers, more than any other media, play a vital watchdog role in their community. If they go away, so does watchdog journalism at any significant scale. TV, radio and non-profit operations don’t have the journalistic heft or format to do it, or do it for very long, anyways.

The newspaper companies that will survive will not consider themselves newspaper companies. They will recognize that they are local media companies, distributing content on paper, through the internet, via the mobile web, through applications and any other way technology lets consumers access news and information.

To last, local media companies have to provide something so unique, so local and so exclusive that consumers can’t get it anywhere else. This is the tricky part — “the who, what when and where are table stakes. They don’t provide a winning hand. Everyone has them; they are commodities.” The path forward is to use the scale of the newspaper’s newsroom to give news consumers perspective, interpretation, context and analysis. That will drive value, not “City Council passes budget.”

The future business model will minimize display ads. It’ll mean a more expensive print edition, smartly priced local content for desktop users, smart phone users and iPad users, and downloadable apps that are for purchase. In other words, click-through advertising can’t carry the load at the local level.

Expect more attention on mobile, and more of an effort to get it right. Newspapers whiffed badly in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it came to the web, and it (and a few other things) brought the industry to its knees. It can’t afford to swing and miss again as news consumers abandon their desktops for their smartphones. They’ve got to get it right this time.

Good stuff. I’m still leery of paywalls, but that’s only because of my singular experience at the Journal Star, where the news reporting was short on enterprise and investigative content and long on public meeting / public safety / administrative content — the commodity stuff. If local media outlets are serious and thoughtful about how they put together a paywall model for their digital content, then the so-called “interchangeable news” — wire reports, general-interest articles, etc. — will simply have to fade away, with more of the newsroom’s reporting girth focused on the unique, exclusive content that can draw paying customers.

In a media environment that continues to be pieced out and chopped up, the news operations that will be successful with a pay model will be those that adjust their coverage to fulfill niche audiences’ needs, and give them unique content that no other site can muster.

From a national news and public-relations standpoint, these scenarios are good for our institution. National reporters will be ever be looking for smarter, more nuanced, more enterprising takes on the day’s news, and looking for the one source, study, program or story that will separate his or her coverage from the “standard” stuff, and that’s where universities like UNL — and her campus full of topic experts — will be able to step in.

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