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Maybe print can serve the Web to save itself (The Pitch 1 wrap up)

September 20, 2008

Jason Preston‘s The Pitch concluded the other night with most of us in attendance agreeing that there was really no business model to support a successful daily print newspaper (long term). I’ll point you in the direction of this link for a more thorough wrap-up of events.

For the record, I’m one of the print doubters. As my boss mentioned at the event, there really isn’t anything print can do that the Web can’t. For me, that’s pretty much the end-all to the argument. But I didn’t just want to give up on the thought, so I rolled it around in my head for a couple days and I actually did come up with a use for printed newspapers:

They can promote the Web.

For most newspapers, the model has always been print first, with the Web as an “accent.” We’re at the point where many of them are starting to flip that around, but not enough of them are doing it and the ones that are aren’t taking it far enough. We’re still living in an era where printed papers are running “breaking” news stories every morning. Why? Why would you want to spend money distributing something that’s already been updated a million times by a million people by the time your original version reaches my doorstep? And why would I want to pay for it when I could get newer information for free?

Part of my theory on that — on why papers don’t just print “timeless” feature pieces or investigative reports — is that there’s not enough of that stuff to support a daily product and to do it any less often would just make them pale imitations of magazines.

But I’m getting off track. Newspapers should exist to promote the Web. Look, there’s never going to be a model that supports selling people old content that they can get for free. It’s ludicrous. So papers should point people in the direction of the Internet and they should do it by targeting the people who are already reading printed material: people who don’t use the Web.

The fact is there are still people out there who don’t have the Web, though yes, that number is shrinking. Old people. Little kids. People who can’t afford it. Newspapers should target their content at these people and they should serve as a tool for getting people onto the Web because after all, that’s where everyone’s going eventually anyway. Might as well make your site the first one they think of when they log on for the first time.

Think of it like this: What if the Seattle Times or P-I changed their masthead to a font that resembled crayon and started running headlines like “Why robots are so awesome” instead of “Bus explodes in Pakistan; dozens dead”? I feel like it makes sense; parents are wary of letting their kids use the ‘Net and newspaper companies are panicked because no one will read their print product. So take a cue from the cigarette companies and hook ’em while they’re young. Once a kid’s parents feel like he/she is old enough to use the Internet, maybe that kid will log onto the site of the paper he’s been reading since he first learned how.

The other two groups I mentioned — the elderly and the poor — are a little different. They may end up never using the Web, so it makes sense to cater print content to them. (Not to stereotype the elderly — I know plenty of octogenarians can use a computer, but many don’t.) But maybe a few do. Maybe an elderly reader decides, “Yeah, OK, I read this column in the newspaper about the Internet and I think I’ll take a trip down to the library and give it a try.” And if that happens, your Web site is your primary news outlet anyway (under my model) so all is well.

Ah, but the real question is: Will those three groups be attractive to advertisers? Well, it looks like this is the part where my great plan to save print comes crashing down around me.

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