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.