A few years ago, someone involved in the rescue of the French newspaper Libération asked me what would I do to save the paper. The question meant a lot to me. I had spent a total of twelve years at “Libé”, many of those when the paper was at its best (I even enrolled Jean-Louis Gassée as a columnist at the time).
This is what I told the owner’s representative:
- One: Dump the idea of a daily paper. Too expensive. Too much competition with the Internet. Distribution in France is hopelessly costly and unreliable.
- Two: Equally allocate journalistic resources to two products, a website and a weekly paper. The website (and its mobile version) covers daily news. The weekly is a light and focused Friday magazine: a small number of well adjusted, value-added stories (investigative pieces, in-depth news analysis, great profiles), great photographs (Libération was once renowned for its piercing, memorable pictures).
- Three: Dump your current printing contract; is only produces a paper where the news stick to the reader’s fingers. Pick a modern printing plant, one able to make a 60 pages magazine, tabloid-sized, with a look and feel comparable to classy British Sunday magazines.
- Four: Restructure the newsroom. Not a little, drastically. Keep the well-known bylines (I meant, those who work), keep the editors who will preserve the standard for the news gathering process. Flatten the organization (French papers, like American ones, have about ten layers of management in the newsroom). Don’t do a buyout like you did already four times (in each instance, the best people took it, it was an IQ test). Inject new blood, there is plenty of young talent out there. Outsource whatever doesn’t make the paper’s style and substance.
- Five: Build on your brand. It is a terrific, undervalued asset, your poor management has downgraded it to charity business (I was even more diplomatic, but that was the idea).
Needless to say, Libération chose a different path. Mostly flattering the oldest segment of their shrinking readership and therefore, sliding slowly on the tedious slope of a complacent irrelevancy. In marketing theory, this is known as “following your demography to the grave”.
Was a turnaround of such magnitude feasible? Perhaps not. Too much financial and human pain. Maybe the very fabric of the paper would have been lost in the process. Maybe. But I’ll always think this paper, which used to be the most brilliant of its time, missed an opportunity to regain its avant-garde status.
Like most of my generation, I don’t see life without newspapers. Well, without something that fulfills the theoretical functions of a newspaper (which, in turn, open the door to other forms of news products).
Two things strike me though.
The first is the cliff-like drop in newspaper advertising revenue. (Read this stunning account in last week’s NY Times). Speaking of The New York Times, its debt is approaching “junk” status.
The second is the number of news junkies (look around you, not at me) who give up physical newspapers without any visible withdrawal symptom. They simply replace one interface with many: web, mobile internet, RSS feeds, a good laser printer to enjoy long articles in bed or at breakfast.
This leads me to wonder: knowing what we know today — shifting advertising market, readership changing habits, modern production settings — what would a modern newspaper designed from scratch look like?
The DIS (Daily Information System) core features:
1. No more one-media setup. Today’s stand-alone daily is on deathwatch. As DIS component, it has a future. Let’s face it: pure news, breaking news, developing stories now belong to the electronic medium. Radio, mobile Internet, website: when speed is key, the paper is dead. Therefore, a DIS must allocate resources flexibly between electronic and paper versions. The survival of the paper is not conceivable otherwise.
2. No more 365 print runs a year. The paper must not be printed every single day of the year. Readers don’t need it; the advertising market no longer supports daily printing. Relevancy and value-added are the only allowable motives for a newspaper, not day-to-day obligation, a stricture of the pre-Internet era. But now, as long as a media enjoys a comparable audience for its electronic and print product, a newspaper can afford (enjoy is a better word, as in financial health) a dotted publication pace. A sustainable model assumes publishing three or four times a week.
Wait, it makes more sense than what we see when only looking through today’s lens: since breaking news and updates are on the web & mobile, the paper is devoted to in-depth journalism (news analysis, reporting, investigative pieces, profiles). Frankly, as long as hard news is available elsewhere and controlled by the same editorial team, who cares if an analysis of Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Georgia has to wait a couple of days? (Actually, more thinking and editing time will make it better). There, relevancy majestically trumps immediacy. Majestically? Think of the regard in which the NYT’s editorials and columns are held.
From a cost perspective, this model makes a huge difference: no more dual labor shifts, better profitability of the ad space (less discount for slow circulation days).
3. The price equation: paid or free? I lean towards the free model. Here is why.
- First, most newspapers are already free — almost. From the Times of India to the Washington Post. Advertising makes the bulk of their revenue. The reader paying to support his paper? This is mostly an illusion (France is an exception, its press is expensive, elitist… and dying).
- Second, like it or not, the Generation X sees can’t see information in any way no other than free.
Three, a sophisticated free newspaper can have a distribution system as targeted and precise as a paid one. Today’s techniques for spotting audience groups are unprecedentedly refined, much more efficient than dumping a stack of papers before a newsstand at 5:30am. By factoring socio-demographics, hourly habits, even newscycle and weather conditions, distribution can be laser sharp.
Readers like free papers. Research shows they find the concept friendly, generous, practical. Many free papers launched as a defensive move by their publishers turn out to be embarrassing successes.
There is an alternative to the free model: a very low price; it yields a better measure of readership and discourages people to discard the paper after 30 seconds of scanning. (For the best free newspapers, the proportion of premature evaluation readers turned out to be small).
4. A more sophisticated sales model. Airlines hate empty seats, look at what they do: dynamic pricing, rates change every minute, yes, a deal will disappear before your very eyes, if computer’s instant load forecast says so. Contrast this with newspapers: the advertiser is asked to pay the same rate per square centimeter every single day of the year (plus or minus 20% with good negotiation skills). Weirdly enough, dynamic pricing has percolated into broadcast media, but not into the print press, why is that? The size of the inventory — i.e. number of slots — does not explain everything. The roots of the problem lie in the advertising food chain, in its creaky conservatism. It starts with the sales manager. There, the preferred staff performance metric is the number of appointments the salesperson manages to stuff in a week (bear with me: it’s pathetic). Then, we move to the media buying agency’s struggling contortions to justify its presumed competency.
For the business plan of a modern DIS, my first move would be hiring a quant PhD. I’d task the brainiac on a tri-media (paper-mobile-web) dynamic pricing model.
5. The product interface and production. Low quality newsprint on a broadsheet is like vinyl records for the music industry. Time to switch to iPods, folks. Contemporary recipes are: small format, no more than forty pages, paper that doesn’t bleed ink, pages glued or stapled, good quality printing to justify premium pricing to advertisers. Indisputably, it works, cf. the tremendous success of the French 20 Minutes (2.5m readers). And layout must be as modular as a Lego game.
This also means the end of cathedral-like, union-controlled printing plants. Small printing presses, able to do profitable runs of few thousand copies are key. And no more printing ownership anymore. That’s passé. Now is the time for well-designed contracts that reflect the new medium’s flexibility.
Modern printers can also economically handle upstream distribution tasks such as preparing bar-coded bundles of papers at the end of the printing chain to make the truck distribution process more efficient (unthinkable in France or the United States due to union obstruction, of course).
6. Staff structure. Keep the org chart as flat as possible. A newspaper must be run by no more than five top editors, plus a few section heads. That’s it. Three or four levels of management maximum, not ten or twelve. The complexity (hence the cost) of a newsroom tends to grow with the square of its staff size.
Outsource non-core competencies. Including journalistic ones. By core competencies, I mean what really defines the identity, the orientation of a newspaper: national coverage, foreign affairs, economy, and culture. Conversely, sports, consumerism, science, style, travel can be outsourced to specialized entities, on a contractual or on-demand basis. Less people in the core newsroom means a smaller chain of command and therefore a much healthier metabolism. No place to hide, bosses included.
Outsourcing includes the recourse to outside experts. Experience shows that many stories would be vastly improved with input from technical experts (legal or economic areas come to mind). A respectable paper maintains a network of experts and scholars, real ones, not quote machines.
Oh, by the way, to the best of my knowledge, an engineer at Apple is not especially encouraged to work on the side for Cisco or Google. Therefore I don’t think a journalist should be allowed to moonlight for other media outlets. It’s fine to have some star-writers who are going to enhance the visibility of a title by writing best sellers or hosting TV shows. But, frankly, how many fall into that category? Two percent? Truth is: the Woodward type is a scarce commodity (and still: according to his contract with the Washington Post, he can work on any subject, as long as he gives first dibs for his scoops to his paper). Therefore, salaries must be adjusted accordingly (kill the idea of low-cost journalism, would you trust a low-cost neurosurgeon?).
7. The test and learn approach. An virtue of an Internet venture lies in its ability to morph and adapt in response to change, whether it is market conditions, unexpected competition, or simply intuition. By comparison, the concept of “release” (v.1.0, 1.1, etc.) is totally alien to newspaper culture. There, because of layers of managements and fiefdom mentality, committee is required to make the simplest change in a layout or to launch a new heading. Like any product, a newspaper needs constant adjustments. The ability to test and adjust is not a byproduct of Internet technology, it is a core feature.
In my view, the DIS is not an option, it’s not even “innovation”, as in something that’s nice to have, that you can get on your own time. How many of today’s newspapers will survive by merely tweaking their ways, their culture? Will they march to the grave with their aging readership? They should look at how many Grey Panthers are using laptops now and weep. In other words, how many titles will get to the newspaper graveyard leaving their readers to really new newspapers? –FF