Chronicle of the newspaper death foretold.

Media criticism.
Nov. 30 2006 6:44 PM

Chronicle of the Newspaper Death Foretold

The newspaper industry knew it was doomed 30 years ago.

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Fresh thinking about what ails newspapers arrived in yesterday's (Nov. 29) Wall Street Journal, where staffer William M. Bulkeley contributed a column titled "The Internet Allows Consumers to Trim Wasteful Purchases." Bulkeley explains how the photographic film industry, encyclopedia publishers, the music industry, and the advertising industry feasted on buyers by forcing them to purchase things they didn't want—prints of all 24 shots from their camera or a whole album to secure one favorite song, for example. "The business models required customers to pay for detritus to get the good stuff," Bulkeley writes. But digital cameras, the Web, iTunes, and search-related advertising have stripped those industries of their power to charge for detritus.

Bulkeley could have easily applied the wisdom of his lesson more broadly to newspapers. It's not that the complete gestalt of local, state, national, and international news plus sports, comics, classified, opinion, and hints on fashion, home, entertainment, and food isn't still useful. It is. But given a choice, and the economic means to make a choice, many buyers prefer to make an unbundled purchase. Unbundling the news they want from the news they don't want is what the Web allows readers to do now.

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For decades, newspapers—and other media—prospered by exploiting what former hedge-fund manager Andy Kessler calls EPILIT, which is short for Entertainment (or Editorial) and Perishable Information Leading Indirectly to a Transaction. The model works to the media moguls' advantage, he writes, as long as the number of distribution "pipes" (newspapers, TV networks, radio stations, cable channels, phone lines, etc.) can be controlled. When anybody can join the EPILIT party—exactly what the Web encourages—the monopoly profits enjoyed by media moguls suffer. And make no mistake about it, American newspaper publishers sucked every available dollar out of their advertisers and readers when they occupied the commanding heights.

Kessler's cheeky essay from October, "Media 2.Uh-Oh," predicts that because nobody will be able to control the pipes in the future the way they once did, all the media markets will be in play and remain in play for some time. The turmoil experienced most acutely by the newspaper and music industries has now spread to the television industry, which is cutting costs and restructuring. (See this story about the collapse of the 11 p.m. news ratings in Washington, D.C.)

If you agree with me that the newspaper business has been on a slow, unstoppable train ride to hell for many decades and that the Web has only accelerated its descent, then you'll enjoy another article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

"Buy This Newspaper!" by editorial-page staffer Holman W. Jenkins Jr. (sorry, only the first paragraph is on the Web) regards Jack Welch's offer to buy the Boston Globe, the coming breakup of the Tribune Co., and Wall Street's snipping at the New York Times Co. as "straws in the breeze" portending a time when newspaper companies stop trimming page size and get rid of paper pages altogether for the Web.

What's preventing anybody from going first, of course, is the $45 billion ad market that generates profit margins of up to 20 percent, Jenkins writes. Yes, newspaper Web advertising is growing, but not fast enough to cover the declines in print advertising. A paper gets about one-tenth or one-twentieth the advertising revenue for a Web reader as it does a print reader, he notes.

To thrive, news companies need to convince advertisers to pay much higher rates for readers who "value their time at tens or hundreds of dollars an hour lingering on newspaper Web sites for perhaps half an hour everyday, and they're not just channel flicking. They're engaged," Jenkins writes. As I've written before, people may be giving up the newspaper habit, but their appetite for news is growing. The 1.1 million circulation for the print New York Times served 25 million unique readers in April via its Web site, according to the company's own logs.

I'm not the type to predict the future, if only because I'm so bad at it. But print editions of newspapers, which saw the endgame coming 30 years ago and did everything they could to forestall it, need to figure out what they're best at and double down in those realms. To give one example, if newspapers think they're in the editorial business, the slimming of the business pages at most dailies indicates that the standard business section is doomed and the copy should be folded into the rest of the paper to make room for a section the masses really want to read. Sports sections that refuse to retool themselves as the smart supplement to ESPN can kiss their pages goodbye.

If newspapers think they're primarily in the advertising business, they could take Mark Cuban's sharp advice from this week and redeploy their ad staffs to broker Web advertising wherever they can find a place for it, not just on their own Web sites. What they'll probably do instead is form a new intra-industry Newspaper Readership Project.

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