(Originally posted at www.edelmandigital.com)
The future of newspapers may well be in Colorado, once home to the late “gonzo journalism” provocateur Hunter S. Thomson and today home to no less that 12 free dailies. All of these papers are very local, and perhaps more importantly, successful. This trend is even more interesting in light of tough times at the “real” state papers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.
This isn’t a Colorado-only phenomenon. Palo Alto, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley and arguably Ground Zero in the “print is dead” movement, has two free daily newspapers. A free paper in Santa Monica, Calif., may soon expand.
Online advertising, pay walls, premium subscriptions – newspapers are trying anything to find new business models. But the future of print’s survival may be in Free.
Yes, free. No subscription, purely ad-driven free newspapers; hyper-targeted to neighborhoods and towns, not cities or regions. And rather than published in the morning when the news is at its most stale and competes for attention with people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, these papers can come out in the late afternoon (for you old-timers, afternoon papers used to be commonplace in the United States.) A free, local, afternoon paper gives you analysis, context and hometown perspective to the news of the day.
“Most revenue for newspapers comes from advertising sales that subsidize the per-paper cost,” Curtis Robinson, editor of the free Portland (Maine) Daily Sun, says on the paper’s web site. “We just work on the model — like broadcast TV and nearly all Internet sites — that people want free news and that advertisers want to reach that readership. Media gurus sometimes assert that free dailies are the “transition” from traditional print media to online-only news — which sounds okay, except that free dailies did well before the Internet.”The Case for Free (and Local)
It’s a popular conceit that people ever paid for content via their newspaper subscriptions. What they actually paid for was the means of distribution — paper, ink, presses, gasoline, tires and so on.
Advertisers were brought along for the ride – the more subscriptions a paper had the more ads that could be sold, which meant more pages and then, you guessed it, higher distribution costs.
This worked fine until the Internet Age. Newspapers made the mistake of looking at the Internet as simply another means of distribution, figuring that people would come to their web sites and read the news, and more importantly read the ads that helped pay for the web servers.
But search trumped any vision of people reading the news only at a newspaper’s web site. Now they could read the news on Google, Yahoo!, MSN or via RSS and Twitter feeds directly on their computer desktops or mobile devices. New media companies like Google saw value in the content, not the distribution, and traditional newspapers have been trying to catch up ever since.
Free may be the answer. And by staying hyper local – or a “micro daily” as Robinson says – the old distribution costs are greatly reduced. The paper is now attractive to readers and to advertisers, who see greater value in ads targeted to their most likely customers.
The editors of the free Palo Alto Daily Post put it more bluntly on their web site (where you won’t find any news):
“Giving away news online is a dumb way to do business. News is valuable. We put our news in print. The news creates demand for our paper, and increased readership makes our ads more effective than advertising in any other medium.”Still Much Work to Do
The latest “State of the News Media” report from the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism offers few surprises: Big-city papers continue to have the worst of it. But small dailies and community weeklies are generally doing better. “The latter come closer to the late-20th century position of newspapers as the dominant source for local information and the place for local merchants to advertise,” the report said.
The New York Times launched regional supplements to its San Francisco and Chicago editions, and even ESPN got into the act, starting regional sites in Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles, challenging papers there for the hearts and minds of local sports fans. Yet these new products still don’t give locals what they really want – high school sports coverage, City Hall and Neighborhood Association news, or why that helicopter was circling overhead last night.
All of this news can and should be delivered online and via mobile devices, especially when it comes to time-sensitive information or live events. And location-tagging services like Foursquare and Gowalla will make the news event more local, and therefore more relevant.
The future of newspapers is still comprised more of bits than atoms; this transition can’t be stopped, nor should it be. But local print dailies have a place and a purpose. They appeal to young and old and everyone in between.
In a world drowning in fragments of fleeting “content,” print is the king of context and narrative. And free is the way forward for print to remain relevant – and survive.