Newspapers seek new business models

Newspapers are seen on display at a newspaper stand in San Francisco, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Today seems to be the day for stories about entire industries in existential crises. We talked about airlines earlier. Newspapers are in just as much trouble...maybe more. Circulation's not just declining...it's plummeting. Same for ad revenue. Thousands of reporters and editors have lost their jobs. So how are papers surviving? Marketplace's Alisa Roth reports.


ALISA ROTH: It's taken years for the newspaper industry to realize that it's no longer really in the newspaper business. It's in the information business.

Scott Anthony: There's a certain content model, there's a certain revenue model, there's a certain production model, there's a certain business model. And the overwhelming tendency still is to say, "How do we figure out how to replicate a model that worked for a century online?"

Scott Anthony is president of the consulting company Innosight. (By the way, Innosight has done a lot of work with the newspaper business. But wasn't directly involved in any of the changes you'll hear about in this piece.) He says the industry's finally coming around to the idea that printing a newspaper online is not the solution. Instead, it needs to find a new model.

Take the Journal News. A paper that covers the suburban counties north of New York City. The kind of hometown paper most people read. It's owned by Gannett, the chain that owns USA Today.

There, as at other Gannett papers, the big move has been toward local news. Not just local in the sense of focusing on, say, the city of White Plains. But what the company calls hyperlocal.

Henry Freeman's the editor there.

Henry Freeman: We've gotten pretty aggressive here at community conversation.

That means creating ways, such as online forums and discussion boards, for readers to participate in the coverage. And then actually paying attention to what readers are saying. Which, Freeman says, has changed the paper's coverage:

Freeman: It's made us realize stories we thought were over and done with that there's still an interest in them. It's made us sometimes realize something that we still think is a big story really has died down out there and there's not a lot new in it.

What readers are talking about plays a big role in the standup "huddles" that have replaced the old-style morning meeting. Which instead of being just a couple of editors now includes anybody in the newsroom who's interested in chiming in.

But chat rooms and discussion boards are just one part of the paper's other brave new strategy. Diana Costello is the paper's education reporter:

Diana Costello: It's no longer just about putting an article in the newspaper. It's now also updating a blog. Assigning videos. Writing TV scripts, producing your own videos for the blog and really just looking at the story from as many different angles as you possibly can to make it as rich for the viewer or the reader.

The paper also produces a couple of glossy magazines and a TV show. The multi-platform approach, as the paper calls it, also makes it easier to go hyperlocal. The Journal News has, for example, extensive coverage of the local Little League, and will cover every one of the 90-odd graduations in the area this spring.

All of this has changed the old product, the daily paper. Breaking stories -- like a freak wind storm that passed through the area late one afternoon, taking down power lines and trees -- end up being covered on the Web. What appears in the print edition tends to be more analysis and less news story.

The ad model's changing, too. The company's been selling ads across all platforms, rather than just for the print edition. Something Editor Freeman says advertisers appreciate. And, he says, readership's up. Not just online, but in print, too.

Of course, Gannett's is not the only model out there. And that, says Innosight's Scott Anthony, is really the new model.

ANTHONY: Even when it becomes clear what a winning model will look like, don't expect that to last more than three to four years.

The new model for the industry, he says, is the need for constant innovation and perpetual reinvention. Because even if a paper figures it out once, if it doesn't know how to change, it might get it wrong the next time.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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