Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Hook 'Em With Print, Sink 'Em With Pixels: How Newspapers Can Stay Viable

The more and more I read about newspapers' struggles to stay viable, the more and more I think we're in the midst of just another shift in thinking.

I recently mentioned that I've been reading Michael Schudson's Discovering the News, a history of sorts of the modern American newspaper. Last time, I mentioned that many of the changes in the way newspapers operate came from the always-adapting penny press.

So the more and more I read the "doom and gloom" (as one reader aptly put it) on the Poynter Institute's fabulous Romenesko column -- and look around on the street to see what papers people have in their hands -- I realize that the best new model for a newspaper is neither completely digital nor completely paper. It's a hybrid -- but not the one we have now.

What newspapers need is a model that brings together a printed paper like a daily Metro and a digital paper like

That's not to say that those two publications should merge. What I mean is that people tend to read small physical papers on public transportation and read digital articles when they get to work. In New York, this means that people read tabloid-size papers like am New York, New York Metro, the Daily News and the New York Post on the subway.

Rarely will you see someone reading the Observer, the Times, or the Wall Street Journal on the train. Why? They're big and unwieldy and most of all, they've got too much text to read for a short ride like that.

The current model of newspapers offers a newspaper that is comprehensive and a digital model that is the same information, only up-to-date with some extra "spillover" stories. This current hybrid isn't a hybrid at all -- it's two twin brother papers, one print and one pixel, competing against each other.

So on my way to work, I end up reading a free daily like am New York in the subway and getting the full story on when I get to work, even though the Times' variety of journalism is much more thorough than the daily's. So I switch outlets: I don't check the 'full story' on the daily's website because it's not enough for me, and I don't have the option to get a quickie Times bit for the subway.

So here's what I propose as a better solution for the digital/paper hybrid as it currently stands: For big, urban-based, broadsheet newspapers that are fighting for circulation like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, etc., there should exist a quickly digestible companion version: A tabloid-size "little brother", 8 pages max, with ultra-truncated stories that pair with their full-blown (older brother's) counterparts on the web.

What could possibly be a better way to ensure that a reader stays loyal to your journalism?

If I had a shortened Times reader (and no, I don't mean their digital 'Reader' service) for the train, it would absolutely hook me into reading the full version online when I got to work. Why wouldn't it?

Who says free dailies should only be local?

And who says they can't have great journalism?

Put it this way: Why can't a 6-8 page daily spread include the top article of each Times section, like the e-mails they send out? Call it the New York Times "Express Edition" -- it's got the quality of the masthead with the brevity of a free daily (and it should be free, make no mistake).

I'm not necessarily saying that such a practice should eradicate the full print version of a broadsheet paper, however. A full version (like the one that exists now) might be better for less-urban areas not served by public transportation, and is probably better for everyone on Sunday.

But why should we put all our eggs in two baskets -- that is, the paper and the digital? I think newspapers should start looking into new ways to disseminate their valuable information and rethink the way they calculate circulation.

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