Publishing Links For Today: Are local newspapers really in trouble and can Google save the day?

Over the past few weeks in this area, we’ve seen our local newspaper suffer the indignity of modern corporate publishing, that is being cut back like an out of control hedgerow to better service other parts of the company.  I’ve been accused of attacking this company through my pieces and the information I’ve presented, but that’s not entirely true.  To be certain, I disagree with some of the decisions, namely the closing of a printing plant, and have criticized it, but only on strictly business terms.  To me, it makes much more sense, if you’re going to have a commercial printing facility actively seeking outside work, to have that facility in this area with its close geography to significantly more possible business than to have it in Easton, far afield of the population bases we can easily access up here.  But that being said, as much as we don’t like it here, we as a community need to accept that the Cecil Whig isn’t a locally owned and operated publication anymore.  It is one of a cluster of publications that is managed outside of the County.  To expect decisions related to their business to be made simply for the best results for Cecil County is unfair and unrealistic.

To some, the local newspaper is seen as a public service of sorts, but at its roots, it’s a business.  A very, very expensive business.  And in case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t exactly a golden age for the news industry.  Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made, and those decisions are never pretty.  The mistake here isn’t in the layoffs, it isn’t in the closing of facilities, it was in a decision made quite a while ago.  The mistake was in allowing the company to be sold out from local ownership in the first place.  And that was a choice  made long before any of the current people in charge had anything to do with it.  The current leadership are just dealing with what they’ve had forced upon them, unseemly as it may be.  That still doesn’t justify winning a company of the year award, but that criticism belongs with the Chamber of Commerce, if it indeed comes to pass.

Which brings me to my links for today. The first is a comment made by Sir Ray Tindle, the owner of Tindle Newspapers, a collection of small, hyperlocal newspapers in the UK.  Tindle makes some interesting points, namely about how the death watch for local newspapers has been exagerrated, and his expectation that they will survive for a long time to come.  I think he’s a little optimistic (actually, a helluva lot optimistic) and that he, himself, is downplaying the technological forces at play that are expediting the fall of print, but what do you expect from an 80-something, life-long newspaperman?

What I think is really important in what he has to say is about the structure of his company.  While Tindle owns numerous titles, they are a private company (no shareholders or stock values to answer to) and each of their publications are run in a very hands-off way from the central office.  He also points out that, unlike many of the larger publishing conglomerates, his company has little or no debt, no outstanding bank loans and no big investors to satisfy.  Here’s a quote:

“We don’t run our titles directly from a head office,” he said. “Each is run locally by local management and a magnificent staff.  We find this is possible, in most cases, and so far we have come through this recession, which has seen 5,000 newspapermen (in the UK)  made redundant, without losing a single title and without making a single journalist redundant and yet remaining completely viable throughout as a group.”

Interesting, no?  A collection of papers still run independently in each case by locals, avoiding the pitfalls of many American and British publishers of taking out huge loans to buy up publications anywhere and everywhere, not having to make decisions based on stock price or debt service and doing just fine, thank you, despite this dire economic predicament.  I still think that technology is going to be a problem in the long run without a transition of some sort, but it does kind of illustrate how newspapers, if run properly, can still be viable entities, at least for a while yet.  To reiterate a point I’ve made repeatedly, newspapers themselves aren’t the problem, consolidation and far-away corporate management, and all that comes with that, is.

Which brings me to my second link, a rather lengthy piece detailing Google’s efforts to find a way to help the news business. Without going to in detail, suffice it to say that Google has a much different approach to what can be done than publishers, and those differences may indeed doom this potential alliance.  For one thing, Google not only accepts but is certain that print is totally dead and that publishers need to discard that platform entirely before they can make progress toward finding a profitable digital equivalent.  That belief is a deal-breaker right there, correct though it may be.

Anyway, for all of its engineering brilliance, Google is hanging their hats on two revenue streams; one is from subscription based content and the other is on web ads.  I’m a little surprised that a company as sharp as Google doesn’t see the inherent problem with this, namely being that those are the two models that have been tried, tried and tried again to very modest if any success at all.  Google seems to be convinced that for-pay subscription services will exist in the not too distant future and that they will generate significant revenue.  To some extent, they may have a point, but they still seem to be overlooking the one key element that makes paywalls fail.  No matter how good your information is, there is always going to be someone else giving at least a fair approximation of that material away for free.  If the news business were the only ones generating content online, wide-spread paywalls might have a chance, but they’re not and technology is continuing to progress to the point that they never again will be.

As for ads, I have stated before and will again that web ads don’t work.  They don’t work for the advertisers, they don’t generate enough revenue for the web sites to move away from print, and their price point has continually gone down, even as total volume has increased.  The problem is that there is no limit on space on the internet. There’s no premium positions because nothing is really premium.  And targeted advertising is a pipe dream.  People simply aren’t going to accept being harvested and having ads for every little thing even slightly associated with a site they may have browsed at one point forced upon them.  Certainly, the big publishers can try, but again, become too intrusive or annoying, and you further drive viewers to other alternatives, and there are always going to be other alternatives.  Google seems to be saying little more than “web ads haven’t worked so far because we haven’t done it for you.”  Plus, when companies start this wide-spread harvesting of info, it might take a month before someone comes up with a web browser plug in that blocks that kind of activity.  You don’t think so?  Just look at the backlash Facebook has faced since changing its privacy policy to make more people’s information more available to outside sources.

Google may well be able to help some publishers out, dragging a few of them at least part way kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but I was a little disappointed.  I would have expected something a bit more innovative than more of the same.  Of course, Google’s motto has always been, “experiment, experiment, experiment and see what sticks.”  Still, they don’t seem to have any more clue as to what will save the news than anyone else does.

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