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7

The death of the industry fad

“I’m afraid that as the people with the money keep scraping away at the edges, we’re going to see a lot less experimentation from mid-sized media outlets.”

For my first decade or so in journalism, I worked in newsrooms that printed and distributed free daily newspapers — tens of thousands of them, all in search of new ways to put advertising in front of readers. I was a print designer at the time, and I found the work more interesting than at a lot of the broadsheet alternatives, so I stuck with it across three separate papers.

Forgot about the free-commuter-paper boom? Well, it’s a reminder that the “pivot to video” was far from the first industry trend to sweep across journalism. (A few others I’ve dipped my fingers into over the years: hyperlocal news, real-time news, and email newsletters. The latter seems to be holding up — fingers crossed.)

The free daily newspaper took a couple of tough blows in 2019 with the deaths of the Washington Post Express, a paper I used to work at, along with the original Swedish edition of Metro, which kicked off the global trend a quarter-century ago. When we lost Express, one of the most successful American examples of the commuter paper trend, I felt compelled to write about it, of course. While free commuter dailies still work in some international markets, and some former free U.S. dailies (like Chicago’s Red Eye and Florida’s tbt*) have evolved into weekly arts publications, the embers in that fire are largely dying out. (Express, famously, blamed the smartphone on its final cover.)

As we mostly said goodbye to the free daily newspaper in the U.S., I wonder if it’s a harbinger of other ambitious risk-taking that’s set to fade out in the future — especially at the local level, where these publications (for example, my beloved former employer Link, published by The Virginian-Pilot between 2006 and 2008) really shone.

The industry contractions we’re seeing aren’t just limited to print or limited to newspapers. Those pivots to video turned into pivots to layoffs; we’ve seen private equity turn successful newsrooms, most infamously Deadspin, into zombies.

I’m afraid that, as long the people with the money keep scraping away at the edges, we’re going to see a lot less experimentation from mid-sized media outlets. Instead, it’ll be the domain of folks who don’t have money but are willing to work hard to do the innovating they can’t do on the clock.

New fads and new trends come to life when people have extra pockets of time to try new things. Think of Google’s ballyhooed 20 percent time. But when newsrooms are struggling to put out the daily product, I have to wonder: Will the experimenters start to go somewhere else?

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter.

For my first decade or so in journalism, I worked in newsrooms that printed and distributed free daily newspapers — tens of thousands of them, all in search of new ways to put advertising in front of readers. I was a print designer at the time, and I found the work more interesting than at a lot of the broadsheet alternatives, so I stuck with it across three separate papers.

Forgot about the free-commuter-paper boom? Well, it’s a reminder that the “pivot to video” was far from the first industry trend to sweep across journalism. (A few others I’ve dipped my fingers into over the years: hyperlocal news, real-time news, and email newsletters. The latter seems to be holding up — fingers crossed.)

The free daily newspaper took a couple of tough blows in 2019 with the deaths of the Washington Post Express, a paper I used to work at, along with the original Swedish edition of Metro, which kicked off the global trend a quarter-century ago. When we lost Express, one of the most successful American examples of the commuter paper trend, I felt compelled to write about it, of course. While free commuter dailies still work in some international markets, and some former free U.S. dailies (like Chicago’s Red Eye and Florida’s tbt*) have evolved into weekly arts publications, the embers in that fire are largely dying out. (Express, famously, blamed the smartphone on its final cover.)

As we mostly said goodbye to the free daily newspaper in the U.S., I wonder if it’s a harbinger of other ambitious risk-taking that’s set to fade out in the future — especially at the local level, where these publications (for example, my beloved former employer Link, published by The Virginian-Pilot between 2006 and 2008) really shone.

The industry contractions we’re seeing aren’t just limited to print or limited to newspapers. Those pivots to video turned into pivots to layoffs; we’ve seen private equity turn successful newsrooms, most infamously Deadspin, into zombies.

I’m afraid that, as long the people with the money keep scraping away at the edges, we’re going to see a lot less experimentation from mid-sized media outlets. Instead, it’ll be the domain of folks who don’t have money but are willing to work hard to do the innovating they can’t do on the clock.

New fads and new trends come to life when people have extra pockets of time to try new things. Think of Google’s ballyhooed 20 percent time. But when newsrooms are struggling to put out the daily product, I have to wonder: Will the experimenters start to go somewhere else?

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter.

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