Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Newspapers Today Where Railways Were Yesterday

Newspapers are where the railways used to be, not where they’re at today. At the beginning of the 20th century railways had a virtual monopoly on long distance land transportation for freight and passenger. Then they gradually lost that monopoly to the motor vehicle and the airplane. By mid-century things had deteriorated so badly that many once profitable railways were going bankrupt. Since then there has been a remarkable turn around and the industry is once again very profitable.

Like the railways, at the start of the 20th century newspapers had a virtual monopoly on the reporting of news. Ironically the very thing that initially helped newspapers has led to their current tailspin – the invention of the electronic media beginning with the telegraph. Radio hardly made a dent in newspapers. TV was the first to make a serious dent as it made news immediate and visual. The assignation of Lee Harvey Oswald demonstrated TV’s superiority for that. However newspapers were still quite profitable.

It was the coming of the Internet and sites like Craigslist, Kijiji and Facebook that turned a once profitable industry into a seemingly dying one by stealing the classified ads. Revenues are falling and papers are closing.

Things have gotten so bad that Paul Godfrey, CEO of Postmedia, came cap in hand to the House Of Commons Heritage Committee in May asking for government assistance of some sort. One MP, Liberal Adam Vaughan, accused Godfrey of seeking government assistance to bail out Postmedia’s considerable debt load. As of November 30th its debt stood at $671.2 million

It would be very easy to ignore this if it was just Postmedia that was suffering, but it isn’t. The Torstar and other newspapers across Canada and the United States are also suffering. Papers have been laying off people, closing papers, losing advertising and losing readers for over the past decade as the Internet grows.

Thomas Walkom, national affairs columnist for the Toronto Star, argued in a column , that some form of subsidy, probably a tax break of some kind, is needed. Up to a point I agree, but even if adopted a tax break will not save the newspaper industry.

The newspaper industry, if it wants to survive, needs to follow the example of the railways. They turned things around by being innovative, changing the way they did things, speeding up service and becoming more customer focused. They also focused on their strengths and not on their weaknesses.

As I mentioned in a previous post, The Front Page Versus Harry Potter too many newspapers are still stuck in the past when print was king and not up today’s technological world.

Decades ago newspapers created press co-operatives, such as Associated Press and Canadian Press, to share the cost of covering news events and to sell and share stories among its members. In recent years these co-operatives have diversified and become more web based. Something similar should be tried with small classified ads to compete with the likes of Kijiji and Craig’s List.

Speaking of advertising, I’ve yet to see a grocery store ad whenever I visit a newspaper site. They keep trying to sell me cars and a lot of things I have absolutely no interest in, but not groceries. My free local weekly paper did not have grocery store ads, except the generic one for Walmart, until a few weeks ago when they’ve started carrying two stores. Hello wake up.

Paywalls are a mixed blessing when it comes to revenue. They bring in revenue at the cost of readers. The New York Times is probably the most successful passing a million electronic subscribers . However it is a global newspaper and most papers are not global, neither are they specialty. The Toronto Star put up a paywall and then took it down again.

Here again newspapers show a lack of innovation. Why not a site where people could subscribe to several papers instead of just one like the Globe & Mail and the Wall Street Journal or several local papers? For matter why not a service that would allow a customer to purchase a subscription to say local news in Southern Ontario or national, regional and local news or the environment and business or entertainment and sports? The combinations are potentially endless.

Is there hope for newspapers? Yes if they modernize and get creative. No if they continue on the track that most of them seem to be on now.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Goodbye Morley Safer

It was with sadness that read of the recent death Morley Safer, 84, who in his day, was one of the top journalists in North America and the world. He was also one of my favorite journalists. Safer had been born in Toronto, briefly attended the University Of Western Ontario, before dropping out to become a newspaper reporter. He worked for the CBC before being lured away to CBS in 1964. In 1970 Safer joined the fledgling 60 Minutes, then just two years old. The show was not yet the institution it later became. He announced his retirement from CBS about a week before he died. CBS aired a special on him a few days afterwards. Then he was dead. He was a dual citizen of both Canada and the United States. Morley Safer will be missed. Rest In Peace.

Here’s a link to an unorthodox obituary Safer

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Windsor Star Still Stuck In The Past

I spoke too soon when I said that as a result of my previous post the Windsor Star had incorporated links. A check of several articles today showed no links. They are still VERY MUCH in the past, unfortunately.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Follow-Up To The Front Page Versus Harry Potter In The Newspaper Business

Probably as a direct result of my blog, the Windsor Star has taken a big step away from The Front Page style page towards the Harry Potter interactive paper. They still have a ways to go yet, but they’ve finally started on the journey and are to be commended for it.

My next blog will take a look at paywalls.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Front Page Versus Harry Potter In The Newspaper Business

Newspapers remain caught between The Front Page and Harry Potter. The Front Page represents a time when newspapers were strictly print and Harry Potter a time when newspapers move and talk.

Like Eastman Kodak, who, despite inventing the digital camera, never quite embraced the digital age, so too are newspapers. They were among the first to embrace email, but never really the Internet. The only question that remains is will newspapers go the way of Eastman Kodak or will they finally learn how to survive in the digital age? The jury is still out.

Since 2007, the year Newspaper Death Watch was founded, at least 12 newspapers have folded, including the Halifax Daily News. Many others are having financial difficulties.

I recently read somewhere that newspapers bemoan having initially given away their online content for free and that is the main reason why they’re in financial difficulty now. I beg to differ. The problem was their websites were afterthoughts to the printed page. While website design has improved, too many papers still put their printed content online without much change.

A good example of two newspapers appearing to be going in opposite directions are the Toronto Star and the Windsor Star. The Toronto Star recently took down its paywall, while the Windsor Star recently put up one. Leaving aside the pros and cons of paywalls, the differences go deeper. The Toronto Star is gradually learning how to be Harry Potter, while the Windsor Star still appears focused on The Front Page.

Virtually every Toronto Star article has embedded links, while virtually every Windsor Star article doesn’t. The Toronto Star has lots of videos, including both printed and online video columns, and frequently has interactive displays. The Windsor Star has the odd video and no interactive displays.

An example from each paper will nicely illustrate the differences. The Toronto Star recently published an article on the long proposed downtown relief line to ease overcrowding on the Yonge Street subway. The article has two embedded links and an interactive map showing the five proposed routes for the relief line. You can look at all five routes together or click on each one individually. They don’t always get it right, but the Toronto Star is slowly learning how to operate in a digital environment.

In contrast the Windsor Star recently did an article on a deal to build new fire hall right next to habitat occupied by the threatened Butler’s garter snake. A snake exclusion fence is to be put up, but there is no illustration of it. The garter snake is one of over 100 threatened species in Windsor, but there are no links to further information on the snake or the other threatened species and no maps.

The Windsor Star isn’t the only paper in Canada or the United States that still doesn’t seem to know how to thrive in the digital age. The question for the Windsor Star and other papers is are you up to challenge of learning how to do it? Here's hoping they are.