New hope for newspapers that's really more depressing than anything

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 11, 2013

From The News Desk

There's an interesting Pew study making the rounds that gives examples of four newspapers that are actually growing. Paid Content's Mathew Ingram has an interesting write up of it here.

He breaks down the main lessons from the papers, but neglects to emphasize the biggest: These are all relatively small papers that rely primarily on local markets that aren't served well by anyone else. Really, the fact that there are only four examples of papers who've been nimble and known their market well enough not to get creamed is pretty depressing.

The solutions are all pretty case specific.

In one case, the small paper aggressively experimented with different digital products. It has succeeded in generating digital revenue that exceeds competitors, for the same reasons startups and small businesses often succeed: They have little to lose and are more nimble. Other publications in markets with older populations have doubled down on print -- something they could do because they knew their unique demographics well. (But we'll see how those successes last.) The fourth example, The Deseret News in Utah, is an even more specific case. It has been dramatically overhauled by former Harvard Business School professor Clark Gilbert, who has in part succeeded by tapping into the Mormon Diaspora. Not an advantage most dailies have.

There's one big takeaway that flies in the face of what most media organizations have been doing for the last five to ten years: Keep your digital and print organizations completely segregated. Most publications have been doing the opposite. After long treating online arms like second class citizens, they've recently begun integrating the two trying to force, say, magazine or newspaper staffers to write for the website and allowing -- in theory -- lowly Web reporters to write for the more prestigious print brands.

I lived through this in an earlier life at BusinessWeek, and it went about as well as forcing a posh socialite to invite rednecks to dinner and promise not treat them any differently. The Web staff still felt second class no matter what anyone in management said, most the online staffers rarely got to write for the magazine and most of the magazine staff made excuses when asked to write for the Web.

The solution? Selling the whole thing to Bloomberg for a paltry amount which gutted most of the entitled magazine staff and started a new.

I tend to agree that in the long run keeping the two separate would have worked better at a place like that with such entrenched hierarchy. You're never going to change a 75-year-old institution's mind on the unimpeachable value of print.

Let the Web staff operate like a startup and beat print in the market place. That's the only way the thinking on which is superior will actually change throughout an organization. Make it competitive. Make the Web staff the underdog with something to prove, not the kid brother always asking to tag along.

But this point aside, there are two sad things about the study that's ostensibly meant to offer hope. The first is the cases are so unique there are are precious few other lessons to draw from these four. The second is that the study has gotten so much attention for managing to find four publications in the entire country -- out of thousands -- who aren't dying. It's astounding carnage for an industry that still mostly refuses to change, clinging to a paywall scheme that's only quasi-working for the New York Times as the salvation.

[Image courtesy Mustafa Khayat]