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This Week in Review: Newspaper survival strategies, and the price of change in New Orleans

Plus: Two new studies on digital news consumption, the news outsourcing debate, and the rest of the week’s media and tech talk.

Evaluating newspapers’ various strategies: Several wide-ranging strategies in the newspaper industry have been making headlines lately (Newhouse’s draconian cuts in New Orleans, Warren Buffett’s aggressive newspaper purchases, outsourcing hyperlocal news to Journatic), and The New York Times’ David Carr tied a lot of them together in a sharp column identifying the severe financial difficulties facing the newspaper industry. The piece of news he reported was the fact that pension funds at major newspaper chains like Gannett and McClatchy are underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars. Gannett Blog’s Jim Hopkins said that finding deserves some attention.

One of the most prominent responses to these financial threats has been the implementation of online paywalls, a strategy that Ebyline’s Peter Beller reported is more common at larger papers, to the point where it now affects a third of America’s daily newspaper readers. Closely tied to that strategy is a doubling-down by publishers on “original reporting” online, which media analyst Frederic Filloux contended is a losing proposition, because aggregators’ tech- and marketing-savviness are trumping the quality of traditional publishers’ work in the battle for online readers. British journalist Adam Tinworth said part of the problem is that publishers are trying out and pitching new digital strategies far too often, instead of being patient enough to see one through.

Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor responded to all the hand-wringing with a list of reasons for hope in the news industry, including the potential in digital circulation, the growth of tablets, community blogs, and customer data.

Elsewhere, media analyst Alan Mutter categorized three strategies for newspapers dealing with the new digital environment — keeping up the status quo as long as possible (“farming” it), accepting print’s decline and extracting as much money as possible before it finally goes (“milking” it), and leveraging old media resources to aggressively invest in digital innovation (“feeding” it). He mapped a different publisher to each approach — Buffett to farming, Newhouse to milking, and Rupert Murdoch to feeding — and ultimately endorsed Murdoch’s plan.

Peter Kirwan of The Media Briefing also praised Murdoch’s efforts to turn up the pressure on his print properties to start making money through digital innovation: Some of the experiments might backfire, he said, but “whatever it takes, speeding up the pace of digital transition can only be a good thing.”

Newhouse’s detractors and defenders: One of those newspapers has drawn particular attention over the past month or so — the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which has now undergone its drastic layoffs and plans to cut down its publishing three days a week this October. This week, the Newhouse family, which owns the paper, rejected a request by several New Orleans bigwigs to sell the paper to an unnamed buyer whom they have reportedly lined up. One local court also moved its public notices from the TP to the weekly paper the Gambit, and the paper is also receiving rants from its reporters about its poor website.

Newhouse’s moves continue to draw strong criticism from media observers, including former newspaper editor John L. Robinson, who attributed the changes to the fundamental conflict between public service and profits. “Profit trumps readers every time. The owners may appreciate the public service journalism the paper may produce, but it isn’t what they value the most,” he wrote. And former Baltimore Sun reporter and “The Wire” creator David Simon argued in the Gambit that what’s being lost in newspapers’ evisceration is the public accountability provided by beat reporting.

But Newhouse has its defenders, too, including Digital First CEO John Paton, who argued that while the company is handling the transition poorly, it’s still making the type of difficult, digitally centered change that’s necessary for the business to survive. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram concurred. Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review acknowledged that arduous change is necessary for newspapers, but said the clumsiness with which Newhouse has handled its moves in New Orleans has swallowed up its goodwill and set the cause of change back.

Two studies with good news for mobile news: Two studies with interesting implications for digital news were released this week, one on mobile news consumption and the other an international study on digital and mobile news consumption. The first, conducted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, found that users of large tablets (i.e. iPads and the like, rather than Kindle Fires) were older, more likely to pay for digital news, and particularly enjoyed reading on the tablet compared with other media. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman noted that those results makes “tablet readers seem the best hope for print publishers that want to make a digital transition based on paid content.”

Slate’s Will Oremus echoed that idea, though he cautioned that tablets may do more to eat into evening news’ audience than help the traditional publishing industry. This study was the final part of a three-part study on mobile media, and Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center gave some suggestions for future mobile news research, including focusing on community news in particular.

The second study, issued by Oxford’s Reuters Institute, looked at digital news use in the U.S. and four European countries, with findings focusing on the rise of smartphones and tablets, as well as young people’s changing news consumption habits. PaidContent’s Robert Andrews highlighted the increasing willingness to pay for news among young smartphone and tablet owners. J-prof Alfred Hermida dug into the numbers and pointed out that while the use of social media for news is up sharply, it’s driven by a small core of heavy news sharers.

Does outsourcing have a place in local news?: Last week’s controversy regarding fake bylines at the hyperlocal content provider Journatic continued to generate debate this week, especially for newspaper columnists who defended the value of locally produced news (such as, say, the news that appears in their newspaper). WNPR public radio hosted a discussion on outsourcing local news, and while former Patch editor-in-chief Brian Farnham didn’t defend Journatic (he said it “gives me a cheap feeling”), he did say the overwhelming nitpicking and self-criticism coming from within journalism makes it difficult for any digital journalism initiative to survive.

Danish j-prof Rasmus Kleis Nielsen argued that with news’ business model collapsing, the question isn’t whether some aspects should be outsourced, but what and when. If this episode illustrates that the article is untouchable, though, the scale of news production is going to have to decline, he said. “Cottage production works for the few, I don’t see how it will work for the many.”

Reading roundup: No big stories this week, but lots of smaller ones to keep up with:

— Some continued discussion about CNN’s (and others’) Supreme Court reporting fiasco: The New Republic’s Amy Sullivan urged journalists to stop caring about scoops, and reporters responded by defending the importance of speed in news. Sullivan replied that it’s not really about speed per se, but obsession with being first with information that will become widely distributed almost immediately anyway. Poynter’s Craig Silverman pulled some lessons for newsrooms from the fiasco.

— Next Issue Media, a digital media joint venture among several top media companies, issued its iPad edition, which allows subscribers to read all they want of 39 magazines for a flat monthly fee — what Shawn King of The Loop and others called the Netflix model for magazines. Time’s Harry McCracken said its audience will probably be limited to print magazine junkies, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was skeptical of the plan as a way to emulate print reading experiences.

— A group of media moguls met this week in California to talk about a variety of issues, one of which was the defeat this winter of their SOPA/PIPA anti-piracy laws. The New York Times and Forbes have more details about how that fight between media and tech is progressing, and Bloomberg broke down some of the other issues the executives would be discussing.

— The New York Observer’s Kat Stoeffel reported that News Corp.’s money-losing tablet news publication, The Daily, has been placed “on watch,” to be evaluated (and possibly killed) after November’s election. Business Insider’s Henry Blodget said The Daily has failed because it failed to carve out a niche or a distinct perspective.

— A few thought-provoking pieces that deserve a read this week: Two from the Columbia Journalism Review on making freelancing sustainable in the digital world and on the battle over the network nightly newscasts, and one here at the Lab by Jonathan Stray on getting ourselves out of like-minded “filter bubbles” in our online information consumption.

Photos of vertical stack of newspapers by J E Smith and of Jackson Square in New Orleans by praline3001 both used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Ben Smith says it will be a guide through the noise of news in social media, and that journalists should realize they’re “part of a collaborative project with other news outlets.”