Can newspapers make your refrigerator smell good?

Newspaper circulation’s long-term declines are well-documented, and a new study (.pdf download) from the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy highlights the shift away from push media (newspapers and broadcast) to online pull media (digg.com, RSS, Yahoo’s portal page). This shift is comprehensive and permanent, a reality newspapers are grappling with. Shorenstein examined traffic to 160 news-based Web sites and found that while the sites of national “brand-name” newspapers are growing, those of many local papers are not.

Newspaper circulations, from State of the News Media

“Our evidence suggests that the Internet is redistributing the news audience in a way that is pressuring some traditional news organizations,” according to the report. “Product substitution through the Web is  particularly threatening to the print media, whose initial advantage as a “first mover” has all but  disappeared.

Part of the problem for newspapers transitioning to online is perhaps related to self-perception. What business are newspapers in? The newspaper business? In 1960, Theodore Levitt wrote in the Harvard Business Review an article titled “Marketing Myopia,” in which he analyzed the railroads’ economic problems. (Read the article by downloading the .pdf. Thanks to Professor Phil Meyer for the reference to this classic reading. Wikipedia has a robust entry on the article and its legacy.) The railroads thought of themselves as being in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. They thought they had a monopoly, but they failed to see new forms of competition collectively eating away at their core business.

As Professor Meyer explains in his book, The Vanishing Newspaper, the newspaper industry has four choices:

  • Think of another use for their product. Baking soda manufacturers marketed their product as an air or refrigerator freshener when their main purpose – cleaning teeth – was taken by toothpaste manufacturers.

  • Write and edit for those who are still buying and reading the printed product, the elderly. Not a good long-term strategy.
  • Enter the substitute industry, which for newspapers is online news delivery.
  • Or, as many corporate media companies are doing, harvest the business for whatever you can get before it goes under. Raise prices. Reduce quality by laying off editorial staff. Take the money and run, a la the Bancrofts and the Wall Street Journal.

It’s painful to watch. I grew up with newspapers. And sadder still is the imperiled state of original and investigative reporting. Government will be able to increasingly operate in darkness rather than light, and voters will have ever less information with which to inform their participation in our democracy. A more troubling question, in light of the popularity of celebrity media coverage and America’s fascination with the likes of Lohan and Hilton, is whether enough people care.

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