Back in the VHS vs. Beta video-format wars of the 1980’s, my family put all its ill-fated chips on Beta. More recently, I went all in with an HD-DVD player instead of Blu-Ray, and about four seconds after I did, Toshiba threw in the towel and stopped supporting HD-DVDs. I also thought Ryan Leaf would make a better NFL quarterback than Peyton Manning, and argued with my childhood friends that Dominique Wilkins would accomplish more in the NBA than that Michael Jordan guy ever would.
In short, I have a long history of taking the road less traveled — the one that ends up dead-ending off a cliff. But one of the rare times when I came to a crossroads and actually made the right call was when I ditched my first love, newspapering, in favor of an Internet career. It was 1999 when I left the University of Missouri’s graduate program, master’s in hand, with a variety of prospects. Could’ve gone to a newspaper, magazine, TV station, even a radio station — but I chose the Web. For once in my life, it seems, I heard the train coming before it ran over me.
These choices and the evaluation of their prescience are complicated, of course, but let’s stick to some basics: newspapers aren’t dying, but they’re a withered, palsied shell of what they once were. And the Internet — especially search-engine advertising, my agency’s exclusive area of focus — is booming. Making matters worse, newspapers by and large have done a very poor job of extending their businesses on the Web. Even today, watching newspapers’ Web efforts reminds me of a Saturday Night Live sketch back in the early 90s called “Carsenio.” Dana Carvey plays a Johnny Carson character so desperate to be hip that he tries to mime Arsenio’s hip-hop clothing, culture and speech — and the result is very painful to watch, because it’s clear that Carson comes from a completely different era and mindset, and has no clue what he’s doing.
Lots of Internet guys delight in the misery of newspapers, and I’ve not always been able to hold back in that department myself. Let’s face it — short of politicans, no one does hubris like newspaper execs. But the fact remains that, as a consumer, I love newspapers. I subscribe to several, and I can’t imagine a day when I don’t “take the paper,” as the older folks say.
In an age where the number of new stories available to me is literally infinite, I’m happy to let the editors keep that gate for me. I’m also grateful that, in a smaller community like mine (Rapid City, S.D.), there’s a common, affordable, accessible source of news and information that the community can rally around. Don’t get me wrong; I have an abundance of beefs and griefs with the Rapid City Journal, but I don’t ever want it to go under.
So it’s to the end of bolstering newspapers’ presence in the 21st century, rather than to poke fun at their difficulties, that I present my very simple revenue idea that I think most midsize-and-larger papers could easily turn into a profit center. Actually, to be completely honest — this is a completely selfish exercise. As an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal, I really, really want them to pursue this idea, and I think other papers could easily follow suit. First, a little background:
I subscribe to and voraciously read the Wall Street Journal because I believe it’s the most useful and relevant newspaper in the country, without a close second. I read the Rapid City Journal because it’s my hometown newspaper. I read USA Today because sometimes I want an eighth-grade summary of what’s happening in the country.
But here’s the thing — three papers a day is a lot of reading. I work all day, and I have two little kids to spend time with as soon as I get home. Then, my wife naturally would like to spend some quality time with me as well. And as mindless as modern television has become, there are still a few shows that I consider can’t-miss (The First 48, I Survived, The Office, etc.) that I want to watch. Oh yeah — I’m also beat-down dog tired at the end of every day.
So, what usually happens is this: An intimidating mountain of newspapers stacks up at my house throughout the week, and by the time the weekend rolls around, I’ve got about 9 hours of newspaper-reading to do. But I don’t have nine free hours (I do, technically, but I prefer to spend those hours with my family), so I end up having to skim each section of each paper, reading only the articles that I feel are absolutely essential. Sixty or seventy others that I have a passing interest in and would like to read — tossed away in the trash. Just no time for them.
I tried to address with problem by taking my papers with me wherever I go, so I can get some reading done in my “down time” — waiting-room reading, parking lot reading, etc. — but there’s not enough of that, either. That actually makes it work, because papers accumulate in my car also, and the recesses of my car is where things go to disappear forever under sippy cups, school book orders and half-spilled Ziploc bags of Cheerios.
Let me contrast, then, the perceived problems with newspapers vs. the real problem with newspapers. The perceived problems is that they aren’t relevant enough, they aren’t substantive enough, they aren’t detailed enough, they aren’t helpful enough. Here’s the real problem: They’re probably just as relevant and substantive and detailed and helpful as I want them to be, but I will never know because I don’t have time to read them. However…
There’s one block of time that looks promising. Even for a small-town dweller like myself, this block adds up to about 50 minutes. For you folks in larger cities, it’s a couple of hours. If you’re one of those unlucky saps who lives in an exurb and works downtown, it could be 3-4 hours. Guessed it yet? Yep, it’s the commute to and from work.
I can’t read the newspaper while I’m driving, though. But I would be delighted to listen, word for word, to a great deal of the stories in the newspaper while I’m driving to work. The writer could read them. A dedicated, velvety-voiced newsreader could read them. Hell, you could have HAL from 2000: A Space Odyssey read them, I don’t care. I’d just love the opportunity to have the stories read to me every day while I drive to work, drive to lunch, drive back from lunch, and drive home from work.
But to my knowledge, no newspaper has done this (and feel free to correct me in the comments section below if I’m wrong). They’ve jumped into the audio/podcasting game, all right, but they’ve again done their best “Carsenio” act by cranking out ill-conceived and mostly ignored podcasts containing supplemental info, bonus interview footage, and other “bonus” crap that no one cares about. But audio versions of their stories that dedicated subscribers can listen to on the go? Nope. Couldn’t do that. That’s not innovative or “out of the box” enough.
And you know what? It’s not particularly innovative; it’s damned obvious. The only other alternative is that it’s not obvious at all and I’m just extraordinarily brilliant for thinking of it, and while that would please me to no end, I doubt it’s the case.
So, ideas are a-plenty, but what’s the business case? Well, I imagine that the additional work involved is minimal if you assign the “reading” job to the reporter who writes the story. Reporters are already being asked to do more with less, I know, but I’m guessing four extra minutes in a recording booth to guarantee that a lot more people “read” their story would seem worth it. Also, if nothing else, it gets their voice out there and heard by a greater number of people, including those looking to schedule reporters on radio or TV talk or news shows — good exposure for the papers themselves and extra money for the reporters. If you didn’t want to use reporters, you could have a dedicated person or two reading and recording the stories, but I foresee problems there with name pronounciations and misinterpretations of certain phrases, etc.
How to charge? I’d probably offer an add-on price to print subscribers. The people interested in this product are fairly hardcore newspaper loyalists; personally, I’d be more than happy to pay double what I pay now per month if the WSJ offered this service. You could offer a standalone subscription to the audio stories as well, if for nothing other than to attempt to upsell them to the print product later on.
How to distribute them? In a subscription podcast, password-protected. Digital delivery of podcasts is quite simple — visit iTunes if you haven’t already seen this in action.
Thoughts? I’m a trained journalism guy who’s been out of the business for a while, so I could be missing something. I just prefer to throw my ideas at the feet of the public and let you guys do with them what you will.