Turning the tide: An insider’s take on the future of newspapers

In 1995, I became an employee of Southam Inc, Canada’s largest publisher of daily newspapers.  At the time, newspapers were at the peak of their performance.  Having a printing press was a license to print money.  The internet was far from mainstream.  In fact, it was mostly the past time of scientists, researchers, and geeks like myself.  Sixteen years later, everything has changed.  The internet is now the defacto source for information of all sorts, including news.  Meanwhile, newspaper readership and revenue is continually on a steep decline.  What the hell happened?

If you ask the industry experts, you’ll like receive a number of unique opinions on the matter.  Some will go on about the real-time nature of the web vs. the “Yesterday’s News, Today!” model of print.  They’ll point out trends like the social nature of the web or the transformation of young people’s reading habits.  Others may agonize over how newspapers gave away all their content for free in the early days and how that model has now come back to bite them in the ass.  Some may claim it’s the natural evolution of journalism and that newspapers (for the most part) were caught flat-footed, with neither the will nor the ability to evolve with it.

If you think we as an industry can’t agree as to the nature of the problem, then it should come as no surprise our inability to agree on the solution.  For those feeling that their content is devalued, erecting a pay-wall may seem like one of the most obvious choices.  They feel their content is worth something, so it seems obvious to them that consumers would agree and be more than willing to pay for access to that content.  Others stand starkly opposed to this plan of attack, and see any obstruction as an affront to the spirit of the internet.  Many of these same people  are concentrating their efforts solely on the digital side,  abandoning the print business,or at the very least putting it on life support.   Regardless of what you believe the solution is, the one thing I think we can all agree upon is that change is required.  The status quo is neither acceptable nor is it viable.

Having lived and worked through most of this upheaval, I feel I have a little bit of authority on the matter myself.  (And even if I didn’t, that hasn’t stopped me before.)

For me, there are bits of truth that can be found throughout all of these lively discussions. Over the course of the next couple weeks, I’m planning on writing a series of posts about this very topic.  Starting with a look back at what went wrong, I’ll then give you my perception of the current state of the industry, and then conclude with a proposal for a new model.  Topics will include the following:

I’m not going to pretend I have THE answer.  From what I see, no one does.  Places like the New York Times and The Guardian may have bits of pieces, but I don’t think anyone would or should claim to have it all figured out.  In fact, there’s even a possibility that no-one ever will.  Perhaps the industry will in fact become obsolete and die, just as some of the most radical of the prophets have predicted.  But I don’t think so.

So why now you ask?  Fair question.  The answer is somewhat simplistic.  I believe that newspapers can not only survive, but thrive in this new digital era.  That’s why I took on this new role in the first place.  Through this series, I’m hoping to play my small part in transforming this industry, or at the very least, have an open and honest discussion about it.

It’s somewhat fitting that I’ve decided to publish the first post of the series on Halloween.  I don’t pretend to be in the same league as Eric S. Raymond, but I do see a lot similarities between the decline of Microsoft and that of the newspapers.  So perhaps this series will be our version of the infamous Halloween Documents.

Throughout this series, I would love to have your feedback.  There is a chance that I’ll be labeled as nut bar, a heretic, an insubordinate, a clueless fiend, or all of the above.  And you know what?  I’m ok with that.  Whether you think I may be somewhat right or dead wrong, please feel free to engage me in this healthy debate.  So go ahead, let me have it.  I have a thick skin.  But whatever you do, if you care at all about the topic at hand, don’t just idly pass by.

So, with that, let’s put on our seat belts and see where this goes.

5 thoughts on “Turning the tide: An insider’s take on the future of newspapers”

  1. Looking forward to this series, Ed. Especially curious to hear about your “holy trinity”.

    One question for you at this point: do you think that paywalls have any place in the new revenue models, or should it be removed entirely?

    1. I’m certainly going to address paywalls as it’s a hot topic again. The short answer is that I’m not convinced they are the answer, and that they do more harm then good. There are certain scenarios where I think they could be viable, but not for general news.

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