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Newspapers in 2020: Few will survive the transition from the era of distribution to the era of the editor 9/14/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Uncategorized.

The World Association of Newspapers has asked the question “what will newspapers be like in 2020,” drawing contradictory responses last week from Business Week, Dow Jones’ MarketWatch, BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis, and Tacoda’s Dave Morgan (whose vision, incidentally, is very similar to mine). A careful reading of the best of them reveals that they share a golden thread — a key insight into what it will take to survive.

The 20th century was the era of the news distributor, but the 21st will be the era of the editor. For decades, the most important core competency in the news business was simply the ability to deliver news when few others could. Networks and affiliates owned scarce broadcast licenses granted by the government, and newspapers owned large, expensive printing presses that could only be supported by papers with the highest circulations. These barriers to potential competitors were so high that many news outlets simply stopped trying to compete for the favor of customers. They filled their content with the commodity news that every other outlet was using (e.g. from the AP network), while presumptuously convincing themselves that they and their journalist peers, not their readers, were the best arbiters of what should be in the news.

But now the Internet is eliminating distribution as an issue entirely, taking us from an information drought to a great flood. Suddenly it feels like we may not even need reporters anymore, because everyone who has ever wanted to be heard by the public is talking and they won’t shut-up. And unlike reporters, they don’t need to be paid to do it. To which journalists might say, yes, but there’s way too much information, much of which is of poor quality, untrustworthy, and reflects an ax to grind. All true.

So, the new arena for competition is editing — gathering all the possible information, and using a combination of new technologies, good old-fashioned human judgment, and creative talent to attract an audience. In today’s primitive stage, these are the talents that Matt Drudge has, but they are not the skills taught in j-schools or at Old Media outlets. That’s the challenge for news outlets between now and 2020 — but few will be up to it.


1. The Future of News(papers) - 9/21/07

[…] his blog Boriss gives us new informed reasons to believe that the newspaper industry is not doing enough to survive, or that it’s structure is so rooted into their old ways that it will crumble before […]

2. Jeff Bach - 10/21/07

I equate this somewhat to a gold rush. In most gold rushes very very few ever rich. Lots of people work it and try very hard. Some die trying. Most go home broke, tails between legs.

In this current rush in the online "news" business, all of a sudden EVERYONE thinks that they can get online and publish and get the "news" out. This would be the equivalent of finding the "gold". Great, you can write and post something on a blog. yippee…..Like you write above, and Max Kalehoff has written about as well – all of a sudden the market is flooded with so called "news" sources.

What happens next or will happen in the future? In my opinion, almost all of those people who flooded the market with their "news" will go bust. Why is this? They will never get enough advertising to support themselves. Most will never attain the readership to garner the advertising to support themselves. Most will never be found or discovered by enough people to even be read at all. Meanwhile collectively, they WILL likely succeed in drawing off significant readership from the traditional newspapers, many of whom will go under or have to evolve into something else.

For now, this all seems to be good for the consumer, because distribution is no longer a bottleneck and there are a huge number of interesting sources with their spin on events etc. Some will find a few loyal readers. Most of us can go anywhere and find something to read that satisfies our urge to read something newsworthy.

As time drags on though, I think many of those new sources will go broke and limp home, tail between legs to find some way to support themselves. Over time the number of sources will drastically shrink, until we arrive back at some balance point where the number of providers equals the amount of advertising it takes to support those businesses.

As most already know, the media market is fragmenting in a big way. This is great for the consumer. It can be a showstopping business wrecker for the providers though. Employers, whether in old or new media, still need to take in enough revenue from either advert or subscription to pay the salaries and other costs of running a business. A fragmented market will not allow for very many businesses to achieve the SCALE it takes to get enough advert or subscriptions to pay their costs.

How many people are making a go of it in the online media world? How many Matt Drudge’s are out there? imo, not very many. Will we all become part-timers dependent upon a spouse working at a job with insurance so that we can dabble in being a new media news source? Will a new way to wring out revenue suddenly evolve that solves the income problem and allows for a fragmented market to continue?

What’s great for the consumer may be something bad for the producer…..
my .02

3. Steve Boriss - 10/21/07

Jeff, Thanks for leaving a lot to think about. I do believe there will be a lot more advertising dollars, including from places that have never advertised before (think Google). But I also think you are right about a consolidation to come…that many people who feel they need the revenue are going to choose not to continue. In the end, I am optimistic that the process will always be moving toward the best of breed in each of the multitude of topic areas, and the ongoing competition will be good for the consumer. Will it be good for today’s producers? I’d say for those who subscribe to current journalism principles, probably not.

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