Last night, I did something I very rarely do: I bought a newspaper.
I very rarely buy newspapers because I very rarely have a need for them: I generally can find all the news and information I want for free online. Also, newspapers leave stacks of paper all over my house that I have to dispose of later and feel bad about wasting. So, there’s actually a good reason NOT to buy newspapers.
So, why did I buy a newspaper last night?
Because there was some news in the newspaper that I wanted that wasn’t available online for free.
Specifically, the newspaper had an article in it that described what had happened at a meeting held earlier this week that will determine the future of Nantucket Island. The meeting was about whether the Nantucket Conservation Commission will allow some homeowners to build a seawall to save their houses from rapid bluff erosion. I went to half of the “ConCom” meeting, and wrote about it here, but I wasn’t able to attend the second half. So I needed someone to tell me what I had missed. I knew the local Nantucket newspaper, the Inquirer and Mirror, would do exactly that. I knew no other publication would do that, given that there’s not much news competition on this island. I also knew the Inquirer and Mirror wasn’t dumb enough to give me the information I wanted for free. So I rushed down to the grocery store in the rain and bought a copy.
As I had hoped, the Inquirer and Mirror told me all about the meeting I had missed half of.
That article alone was worth the $1.50 I had to pay for the paper. That price, by the way, was about half of what the same store charges for a blueberry muffin.
But there were other articles I enjoyed reading in the paper, too, none of which I could have found anywhere else. For example, I learned that a couple of swimmers had gotten caught in a current at a beach where my family swims and then been whisked out to sea (the swimmers were rescued, thankfully, which the paper also told me about.) And I learned that they are going to put a STOP sign at the intersection of Orange Street and Union Street, which is excellent news (it’s high time they did that). And so on.
In short, I was extremely happy with my newspaper purchase, which delivered a lot more than $1.50 of value to me.
And that got me thinking about the much-ballyhooed problems and challenges in the news industry and how unbelievably boneheaded so many newspaper companies have been.
The main problem in the news industry, of course, is not that there isn’t enough news coverage (a common complaint that newspaper people invoke to scare you into thinking that if their jobs and salaries aren’t saved the world will go to hell in a handbasket).
The problem in the news industry, with many popular areas of coverage, is there is way too much news coverage.
There is so much news coverage, in fact–so many news organisations covering the same stories–that news companies have to give their news away for free (because, although journalism schools won’t tell you this, the more there is of something, the less it is worth–supply and demand matters in this market, too).
It’s not surprising that those engaged in this kind of news coverage will say anything to try to protect their jobs. But the fact that some of these commodity-coverage jobs are threatened isn’t even remotely a threat to society. They aren’t all threatened. We do need some news about, say, the White House . But if the number of news organisations that can afford White House correspondents gets cut in half, society will be just fine. We’ll still have more news about the White House available for free all in real time than we could ever possibly consume.
The other trouble in the news industry is that, for the past 20 years, many news organisations haven’t even charged for news coverage that there wasn’t too much of–stuff that people would have paid for.
What news coverage is that?
News that other news organisations aren’t covering.
The only way I could think of to find out what happened at that Nantucket Conservation Committee meeting was to buy the only newspaper that covered it–a newspaper that, wisely, did not also publish the article online for free. The newspaper did a good job covering the meeting, so I was happy to pay them for their effort.
The Nantucket paper, the Inquirer and Mirror, has always charged for its content, online and off. The boneheadedness that has crippled the rest of the newspaper industry, in other words, has not found its way onto this island.
In these two observations, by the way, lie the secrets to building a happy, healthy, and vibrant news industry of the future:
- Consolidate the “commodity” areas of the global news business, so that literally dozens of high-quality news organisations aren’t covering the exact same stories and scratching and clawing just to survive, and
- Stop giving away for free news and information that people will happily pay for. What will people pay for? Well, for starters, they will pay for news they want that you have that no one else has. (They’ll pay for other things, too, but you can worry about that later).
These things are already happening naturally, and they will continue to happen. And that’s great news. Not just global news consumers, who now have access to more news at lower cost than they ever have in history, but for news professionals, too.
Contrary to what career newspaper folks will tell you, we are in a golden age for news. And as this transition period ends, and the industry consolidates and gets smarter, things are only going to get better.
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