September 28, 2022

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Don’t Blame the Printing Press

Don’t Blame the Printing Press

With the Christian Science Monitor and US News & World Report curbing print production in favor of online publishing, some media powerhouses may be misunderstanding the nature of the current problem. Although slashing the frequency of print editions may succeed in cutting some costs over the short term, it doesn’t address the fundamental problem: a dearth of unique, indispensable content.

The proliferation of publishing outlets, both online and offline, creates a serious supply problem. Historically, in order to stand out in the media space a publisher needed to have a powerful brand, superior distribution channels, or unique and compelling content. The nature of these factors has changed considerably over time, however.

An established brand no longer guarantees eyeballs, as the aforementioned publications have discovered. Brand still provides an important edge, but consumers seem more willing to accept new sources of information, especially online. Moreover, the time it takes to establish a recognizable brand has shrunk as the electronic world accelerates the spread of information among interested parties.

Distribution channels remain a challenge for many media providers. In the past, this meant getting an FCC license to broadcast, partnering with hotels or airlines to disseminate your print edition, or establishing a network of delivery partners to provide your copy to homes and businesses in specific geographic areas. Now, however, there are more potential ways to distribute content, which isn’t necessarily a positive development for publishers and producers or consumers. While it provides access to more perspectives and sources of information, it makes it increasingly difficult to match quality publications with targeted audiences.

But the real challenge right now is the lack of unique and compelling content from media sources, both new and old. Far too often we see “me too” journalism where newspapers and broadcast outlets use syndicated content (things like Associated Press wire stories or video from network affiliates). A failure to provide unique information and perspective is a surefire way to lose audience share in a hypercompetitive marketplace.

Even those content producers that shun syndicated content frequently fall into the trap of covering the same stories as everyone else. To some extent, this may be impossible to resist. But to the extent that a story in one publication reads almost the same as one in another, it devalues that individual outlet. It encourages consumers to choose content based on convenience or happenstance rather than luring them in directly.

Rather than producing the same old content and simply publishing it online, traditional and new media alike should seek to identify key differentiators for their product. Unique sources or angles can be effective tools in helping a media outlet stand out from the pack. In some cases, the answer may be to narrow the focus considerably to become an expert in a particular niche. Others may choose to identify with a particular point-of-view in order to cater to certain audiences. (One must remember that newspapers of yesteryear had very pronounced biases — something that is arguably better than those outlets that seek to pretend their reporters have no viewpoint.)

Of course, shifting to an online focus actually increases the need for content for many publishers. The daily demand of online consumers may well dictate a need to “feed the beast” more frequently, unless a publication sets a clear expectation for less frequent updates. Any media organization seeking to switch things up like this would be wise to consider the true costs of the change.

Ultimately, traditional media ought to stop bashing the printing press and instead embrace meaningful content. Those that offer unique products stand a much better chance of survival, even in the midst of the current media storm.

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About The Author

Chip Griffin is the Founder of CustomScoop. He writes and speaks frequently about data-driven public relations. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.

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    Robert Quigley

    I respectfully disagree. I don’t think content is the problem.
    Newspapers are still doing great journalism, especially on the local level. Yes, they use AP material, but the local news produced by most papers is still unsurpassed by any other outlet. Also, eyeballs are not the problem. Most newspapers in the United States have seen an increase in overall readership (between print and online) in the past 5 years.
    The problem with the industry is its business model. No longer does the newspaper control the advertising market the way it did in the past. Just 7 or 8 years ago, if you wanted to look for a job or sell a car, the local newspaper’s classifieds section was the first place you’d go. Now it’s probably the last. It’s not because the newspaper lacks “meaningful content.” It’s because Craigslist, eBay,, etc. exist. And they do it way cheaper (or for free). Newspapers relied heavily on that classified money (especially cars, jobs and homes). That’s just classifieds – newspapers also face competition for advertising dollars from Yahoo, Google, MSN and other Web sites. If I’m selling an ad, these are choices that weren’t there before, either. I would have just placed an ad in the newspaper in 1998. Now I can go anywhere online with my business (cheaply).
    Newsrooms have to quickly move to an online mode, but newspapers also must adjust their business models. It is possible that there is no good solution that brings newspapers back to where they were. But that’s the problem – not the use of AP material or a lack of good journalism. It is a hypercompetitive marketplace – for advertising dollars.

    Chip Griffin

    Robert, you make some good points. There are absolutely business model issues that must be addressed. There is no denying that the loss of classified revenue, coupled with declining department store advertising, has put a real pinch on printed newspapers.
    However, I would take issue with your statement that readership is increasing. In absolute terms, you may be correct. However, much of the traffic to newspaper web sites is search-related and not destination-specific. Therefore, it differs significantly from paying subscribers to the print edition.
    Moreover, there is a real distinction to be made between those who pay for content (home delivery or newsstand) and those who browse for free on the web. The former can be reasonably assured to find real value in the content; the latter needs to be tested on willingness to pay before you can make a similar statement.
    Finally, I do not mean to imply that there is no good local newspaper journalism. In fact, there is. Yet as I pick up local papers around the country and visit their web sites, there is still far too little to differentiate the vast majority of the content.
    Much — but not all — of it is wire service or syndicated material. Take a look over at’s collection of newspaper front pages, for example. Far too many of them feature massive photos and stories about the Bush-Obama transition meeting at the White House yesterday. That’s the epitome of “me too” journalism. They don’t incorporate local angles to the story, and anyone who cares about that news has probably been inundated with it from a dozen different directions. Why not lead with something of local significance (as I would note your Statesman is doing with its web site today)?

    Robert Quigley

    Point one: I don’t know about all newspapers, but here in Austin, we have more readers now in absolute and in any other terms now than we had in the past. Our local penetration numbers are incredible, thanks to our online readers.
    Point two: Whether they pay for a subscription or view us online for free, readers expect value from our sites. Our brand’s reputation is at stake.
    Point three: Sure, when there’s a big national story, newspapers tend to run AP or NYT. I personally enjoy a really well-done localized version of a national or international story. At the same time, there are times when AP or the NYT wire services are not only good, but great. We should localize when we can, but there are times when running a good wire story is a good service, IMO. We have limited resources, as you know. The question is do you push those resources to localize an obviously national story, ignoring perhaps a good local enterprise story, or do you run a good wire service story and make sure you’re hitting all your local enterprise out the park? That choice often has to be made.
    Point four: I’m still a firm believer in striving for unbiased journalism. I don’t think doing what broadcast journalism has done (take a decided political bent) is good for newspapers. It quite possibly could be good for the immediate bottom line, but I think we’d lose credibility in the long run. In the end, our credibility is all we have. Sure, individual journalists are biased. But good journalist and good editors work to be sure that all sides are presented and stories are as down the middle as feasible.
    Point five: I reiterate my contention that we mainly have a business model problem. Most of your good criticism would have applied 15 years ago (not localizing national stories enough, etc.). Considering I love this industry, and I truly believe in its importance, I hope we figure it out.
    This is a great discussion, by the way.

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