How Newspapers Die

Screen shot from msnbc.com this morning; I like them because they give me the news without much clutter.
Screen shot from msnbc.com this morning; I like them because they give me the news without much clutter.

I work for a newspaper. I’ve been doing it a long time, and I have seen many changes over the years. Recently, newspapers have suffered a significant decline in readership and advertising. There are a variety of reasons, but the most devastating reason is that newspaper owners don’t understand the internet.

That’s a big statement, I know. Don’t understand the internet? Let me show you: yesterday a devastating tornado ripped through the Birmingham, Alabama area. I first read about it on one of my favorite web sites for national news, msnbc.com. I like MSNBC because their web site is uncluttered and gets right to the point. I also browse Yahoo. They both have some advertising, but it seems to be in the right place. After all, if advertising interferes with my viewing experience, I almost always leave the site and find my news somewhere else.

In the process of reading about the tornadoes, I recalled that our corporate headquarters is in Birmingham. Oddly, we don’t own the newspaper there, but I thought I would take a look at it anyway, to see how it compared to MSNBC or Yahoo. I found The Birmingham News and went to their site, and what I saw stunned me. Cluttered, unfocused, directionless, littered with distracting ads, and almost insultingly ignorant of the importance of giving the reader the only real thing they want or need from a news web site, the news.

How does this happen? When newspapers are owned and operated by entities that lose sight of who they are and why they exist, to provide the news, they are lost altogether. I’ve sat through conference calls and webinars talking about how to survive in the internet age, and the executives on the other end of the line talk about revenue. Just revenue. They want to know how they can sell, and what they can sell.

I love the news business, and I want it to succeed. A society needs a free and healthy press in order to remain free itself. It’s disturbing to see newspapers destroy themselves because they can’t grasp the basic notion that they are a product, and the only way to sell a product is to make it good. I won’t visit The Birmingham News web site again for any reason, but I will keep clicking on MSNBC because their product is so much better. Which one do you think will have better revenue and succeed?

Screen shot of today's Birmingham News front web page; this is, quite honestly, a terrible product.
Screen shot of today's Birmingham News front web page; this is, quite honestly, a terrible product.
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2 Comments

  1. This man speaks heresy! Let’s all pitch in five dollars and contract someone to burn him at the stake!

    Mmmmmm…burn…steak.

    This comment sponsored but not necessarily endorsed by Six Gun Frank’s Meat Shack.

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  2. “I like MSNBC because their web site is uncluttered and gets right to the point.”

    Oddly, that’s the opposite reason I quit reading their site a few years ago; it looks like they’ve changed quite a bit for the better. :-)

    Your point is completely valid and keeps being mentioned by those in the know, yet many newspapers are oblivious.

    Since leaving The Producer in 2009, I’ve often considered writing a scathing review of it (from an insider’s perspective), along with suggestions for improvement. I guess I just haven’t grown the balls yet.

    The reason papers like The Producer are still making money is because no one’s competing with them (no one else provides the information they provide about that specific local area). If anyone — even a single person with lots of free time — tried very hard to put some of that same news on a good website, the paper would fail, and quickly. It’s just a matter of time, if they don’t wake up.

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