Sunday, November 11, 2012

Newspapers Can Rethink Their Business and Survive (A Product Managers View)

An insightful feature in this week's Christian Science Monitor about the ongoing struggles of the newspaper business made wonder if many people in this business understand the discipline of product management. If they did, the substance of these stories might be a little different.

We all know that the printed newspaper industry is in peril. Revenue has been drastically declining because classified and help-wanted ads have moved to the internet. Subscriptions continue to decline as more people get their news from free, online sources. According to many in the industry, this is the decline of modern civilization as we are losing sources of original reporting. There may be a kernel of truth to this, but in my opinion we are not losing too much.

The reality is that most people who subscribed to newspapers didn't actually read most of the newspaper anyway. They scanned the headlines, checked sports scores, and maybe read the Dave Barry column and letters to the editor, along with a comic or two. This type of short attention span news consumption was no different than what's happening online now, without the wood pulp. My 3 pound Sunday paper contained 2.5 pounds of mattress ads and 1/2 pound of fluffy special interest stories. And not just this year or last year, but for as long as I can remember! That's why I stopped subscribing; not because my attention span has gotten shorter.

So what's the kernel of truth in the dire prediction? Borrowing a quote from the referenced feature, it's that newspapers have historically provided "local journalism that holds leaders accountable and knits communities together," and they can continue to do so. The subset of people that were interested in this stuff still are; and they're still willing to pay for it. This is where the product management-thinking comes in. Good product managers know how to successfully match the needs of the market with their company's distinctive competencies. The market still wants news, but it has lots of ways to get most of it now... except at the local level. Newspapers have journalists, reporters, and delivery mechanisms that can provide that news, but they remain mostly focused on the wrong things... compiling content from around the world that is available from a thousand other sources.

What if newspapers focused 100% of their decreasing people, resources, revenue, and time on local news and journalism, and delivered it in an electronic-only format? That subset of readers who really care about the journalism would still be willing to pay for this, and although circulation would decline, so would costs. Over time, circulation might actually increase as the "Voice of Springfield" refocused itself on walking the walk, instead of being the voice of the world with 1 page about Springfield. In other words, newspaper companies need to stop thinking about how to prop up their historical business, and start doing what they're good at for the people that are willing to pay for it. If they do that, maybe they have a chance.

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