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Dec 12, 2008

Beecher: Can quality newspapers find their niche?

Can "broadsheet" newspapers be reinvented as high quality niche products targeted at narrower audiences who are attractive to advertisers? Eric Beeecher writes.

The business model for newspapers, we are told, is collapsing. Newspaper companies across the world are under siege from investors and bankers because their advertising revenues are in free fall due to an enveloping recession, and because their monopoly on classified advertising has been hijacked by the internet.

Right now, most big newspaper publishers are acting like stunned rabbits in the headlights. Their immediate solution to this tsunami has been visceral: cut costs, try to sell assets, cut more costs, slice dividends, defer debt repayments, cut more costs. And, after all that, pray that the spiral will end soon.

But in the minds of some people who understand and care deeply about the future funding source of good journalism, a more nuanced and thoughtful response to the demise of the 150-year-old broadsheet newspaper business model is emerging — the idea of reinventing so-called “broadsheet” newspapers as high quality niche products targeted at narrower audiences who are attractive to advertisers and fundamentally committed to the idea of reading a newspaper. With smaller circulations and higher cover prices. Operating on a much lower revenue base, with far less dependence on classified advertising.

In Australia, and specifically at Fairfax Media, this approach would clearly require a new management and editorial mindset to create an entirely different kind of quality newspaper.

A leaner, bespoke newspaper that bristled with ideas and curiosity because it no longer had the requirement to appeal to a broad market. A newspaper that treated news as the commodity it now is and built on the news with backgrounding, probing and analysis. A newspaper with fewer pages, vastly less lifestyle and advertorial journalism and much more certainty about its place in the life of its (smaller) audience. A newspaper that connected with the issues that mattered to its more defined universe of readers. Emphatically not an elite newspaper, but an intelligent newspaper. A newspaper that no longer had to deploy costly tricks and subterfuge to manufacture an audited circulation because it had the confidence to believe in its value to advertisers.

And — crucially for the business model — a newspaper with half the staff and cost base of today’s Sydney Morning Herald or Age. Fewer journalists (but still the best journalists), fewer executives on high salaries, an entrepreneurial energy and structure, a vibrant editorially-led culture with no wrap-arounds or football posters or form guides or fashion supplements or wine magazines or expensive sponsorships. A sleek pocket battleship, not a rusting Queen Mary.

Is this a viable model for the future of quality newspapers? Many people with expertise are talking about it and believe it could be a confident response in an eerily unconfident industry. Are the current owners and management of imperilled newspapers capable of conceptualising such a template? Unlikely.

This kind of newspaper model would actually be a new invention hooked on to an existing prestige masthead — not a beaten and battered, trimmed-down, low-cost version of an existing newspaper. Which is why the incumbents are probably the people least likely to understand it or embrace it.

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16 comments

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16 thoughts on “Beecher: Can quality newspapers find their niche?

  1. Chris Sanderson

    I would just add:

    The need for integrity, which has been missing from the main media for far too long.

    Total independence from corporate and political influence and spin.

    Inteligent and well informed contributors who can also write well.

  2. John Wright

    The book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton M. Christensen, HBS Press 1997, explained through case studies as different as backhoes and computer disk drives how leading companies fail to adapt to disruptive [technological] changes. Newspaper, and other media companies, are failing for the same reasons. Unless they have very enlightened management who are able to lead their staff, companies and customers (readers) through these changes, the end is inevitable. The public manifestation of Fairfax management’s decisions does not exhibit any signs that they are aware of the lessons written about by Christensen, and are so doomed to continuing leading their company and staff into the sorry end. When will they learn???

  3. BurgerDee

    I’m under 30 and really enjoy reading a good newspaper with a range of interesting supplements on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Unfortunately I normally live in WA and acquiring a good newspaper is impossible, especially on a Sunday. At the moment I am in the UK, and yes UK newspapers are seeing their circulation numbers drop, but the quality of journalism and the range of stories is just so much better (in the newspaper I regularly read anyway) than what I can get in Australia. I think the problem with Australia, is there is a small number of papers who are trying to appeal to everyone, rather than having a target market. In the UK, papers know who they appeal to and stick with their target audience. Just think about the range of different audience types that each paper is trying to target: The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Guardian etc, each one relatively distinct. In WA however, we have 1 paper trying to appeal to both the highest and lowest denominator and fails on both accounts. Its going to be hard when I do get back home, what am I going to read on my leisurely weekend mornings?

  4. mike smith

    Quality newspaper, we’re talking dead-tree type? I’d be interested, if it were weekly or monthly. Which is pointing to a form-factor more like the Bulletin was. For daily news there’s online.

    Memo to online news services: don’t bother with ads, we block them with firefox and or our hosts file.

    http://www.mvps.org/winhelp2002/hosts.htm

  5. kayt davies

    Kevin Jones beat me to it.
    I was going to add that this newspaper of the future sounds a lot like a magazine.

    Personally I love the idea of a mix of niche advertising and paying for content.

    My eyeballs are tired of being sold.

  6. Kevin

    All healthy debate, but the irony of this is we’re really talking more newspapers in what is a shrinking slice of the media. Newspapers in this country in the last year shed about 5%. The next year will be interesting to see if the “freefall” hits Australia. All industries adapt to change – newspapers, their content and their business model are not immuned. I have a very large vested interest in the future of newspapers, but not THE newspaper as you see it today, the content and parts of the business model. Yes,it will change, but the death of the newspaper is still a long way off.

  7. Cathy

    Nothing is sillier than removing or avoiding the aim of your industry when you can’t attain it. Which is what our mainstream media has been doing for years to appease print and electronic investors confined to near-enough productions that aren’t. The conundrem facing our print, television and radio outlets now is how to claw back their DNA after shedding it for expedient profitability. We all stopped reading, listening and watching because communication became as predictably boring as porridge and yes, we’re desperately in need of relevant interaction in a range of ‘languages’ on all sorts of levels. Outside of the ABC who wants to do that?

  8. Annie

    I stopped buying The Age at the same time as my Sydney family stopped buying The Sydney Morning Herald. Reason? Both newspapers became ‘news pictorials’ and pandered to the LCD to, apparently, increase circulation. For some time, I reluctantly persevered with The Age, but only because I owned an old, much-adored but diseased dog, who’d lost bladder control! If I do purchase a newspaper these days, it’s likely to be The Australian, despite the fact that, on the whole, its editorial policy and columnists are most likely to have opinions inimical to my own. Still, I find current debate there, and can ignore the ferociously belligerent partisan views of most of its very ill-mannered and vulgar on-line respondents.

    I remember how very good The Age once was, with regret and nostalgia. I was prepared to continue to compost the pages which I didn’t want but reluctantly paid for, if only the overall quality of news and commentary had survived.

  9. Kevin Cox

    All industries who face competition from innovators should read Christensens book.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Innovators-Dilemma-Revolutionary-Harperbusiness-Essentials/dp/0060521996

    This gives the reasons why existing newspaper organisations have difficulty facing the future – and why it is so hard for them to compete and adapt. They know the problems but to succeed they have to “eat their own lunch” and that is hard.

    A few years on from Christensen’s book the disk drive industry is about to disappear entirely with the development of solid state “drives”. If you thought newspapers had a problem spare a thought for the people who know how to make small pieces of metal spin fast and reliably.

  10. Anne Summers

    Eric
    Why don’t you start such a newspaper? As you say, the current proprietors will never be able to adapt to the concept, nor shed their absurb habits of lowest common denominatoring. I have long railed against the waste involved with the Saturday papers where I instantly shed more than half the paper – Sport, Drive, Employment, property, Travel. I would willingly pay more for a smaller paper that was informed, up to date and intelligent. The othe mistake the papers are making is their ruthless shedding of the one demographic that still reads newspapers, the baby boomers. They still have a good 20 years left in whcih to buy papers yet they are of no interest to today’s editors who assume that if you fill the papers with young airheads then same will read you. Wrong.

    Eric, we are ready for it.
    Anne