Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
March 17, 201010:47 PM

Buying A Newspaper And Free News

Would you buy a newspaper?

When word got out that the Montreal Gazette was being put up for sale along with the entire Canwest newspaper family, I immediately asked one of my business partners over at Twist Image if our company might be interested in purchasing it.

He laughed at me.

Not because we could not afford it (the truth is, we can't afford it, but we could probably find the right people and raise the money to do it), but because there was no logical connection in his brain between what we're doing here as a digital marketing agency and how that fits with owning a local newspaper (my background as a magazine publisher didn't seem to sway him either). He was right, even though The Gazette is profitable. In fact, for a medium-sized business like us, we would love to have the kind of profitability this newspaper has.

But, the other truth is that Canwest is a whole different type of business.

The economic recession, that reduced traditional mass media advertising, along with a newspaper's many legacy systems which pre-date the Internet and mobile device era - unions, printing plants, trucks and people for distribution, leases, office space, etc. - makes things seem more dire and urgent. The new business models that come into play also confuse the newspaper (and publishing) industry even further. There is no one single thing that is going to save the newspaper industry (like the Internet or the iPad). The Internet and free news on the Web is not the reason that people are subscribing, reading or caring less for their local newspaper (in fact, the plight of the publishing industry has been a hot topic of debate long before we had Google, iPhones and Twitter). We tend to forget how hard the publishing industry lobbied for more attention and care when they began to discover the masses were reading a whole lot less when compared to watching television.

Free news on the Internet is a business model.

Just last week, Le Devoir held a conference in Montreal on the future of independent media as that daily French newspaper celebrates its centenary year. Writing out of the conference, The Gazette's Jason Magder cited Torstar chairman John Honderich as saying that giving away content online has turned out to be "a bad idea." With all due respect to all of the traditional news outlets out there in the word, that's simply not true. Free news online is a very viable business model, and there are many big media publishers making lots of money online offering free news (check out The Huffington Post, Mashable, TMZ, Media Bistro, The Daily Beast and many more).

When looking at how these free, digital-only publishing houses work compared to the traditional news media, the differences are staggering.

From how the journalists are found, managed and paid to the marketing and advertising models, to the actual management infrastructure, one would not be hard-pressed to say that they look nothing like the industry that they inherited and digitized. Maybe the newspaper industry has to look well beyond the current model of simply copying-and-pasting their print content and publishing it online to re-imagining what publishing means in a world where 20 people and a WordPress publishing platform can do the job using text, images, audio and video that it used to take 200 people to do in a fraction of the time and cost.

A Canadian Press article out of the Devoir conference noted, "Part of the rush to offer free content online was spurred by the advent of so-called citizen journalism, touted as a democratic expansion of the media industry to non-professionals. But some argue citizen journalism won't be able to fill the gap left by mainstream outlets who are reducing their operations or closing down altogether. Persephone Miel, who wrote a major Harvard study on online journalism, said most citizen journalism deals with electoral politics, popular culture, technology, and little else. Ignored are more nuanced and weighty topics such as public policy. 'The question is not the survival of the newspaper,' she told an audience at the conference. 'The problem is who is going to produce... the kinds of journalism that isn't getting produced by online publications.'"

The answer might be that news which serves the public good needs to be funded much in the same way education, healthcare, libraries, the police, etc., is handled, and that news doesn't, necessarily, have to be a media format that has both revenue and advertising dollars tied to it. It can simply be something that is supported by the public for the public good. Many pundits (do a quick search for people like Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky) have uniformly stated that:

Journalism will survive the institution it was created for.

All of this might sound weird, and you might be wondering what this has to do with your business, but it is all connected. How we communicate, share, and connect is tied to the media channels that keep us informed. As they begin to deal with both the digitization and fragmentation of their industry, you can't help but wonder what will happen when it hits your industry as well (if it hasn't already).

What's your take?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

- Montreal Gazette - Why I won't buy the Montreal Gazette.
- Vancouver Sun - Newspapers are struggling, but journalism will survive.

By Mitch Joel