May 5 2009
There’s much crying about the fall of the major metropolitan newspaper, a process hastened by the severe economic recession. There are many reasons cited, from the rise of new media to poor change management. Yet one can see a similar pattern in recent history, when another mass market product — the department store — also succumbed to the pressures of smaller, more nimble competitors (Original Image: Hamburgers 1920 by army.arch).
For department stores, many chains found their death in a trojan horse — the mall. With the rise of the mall, department stores were asked to anchor these megaplexes. But inside the smaller stores were more nimble, better competitors who specialized in deeper lines of products. Electronics, women’s shoes, hardware, whatever it was, from big box to pretzels chains took shoppers away from many department stores.
Ironically, like the mall, the Internet was supposed to be the future of newspapers. But for some reason the 90s passed and the opportunity was never realized. Perhaps that crack known as print advertising was just too good to give up. Or maybe, change was really that hard.
At the same time, technology enabled easy publishing in the form of weblogs and new influentials rose to the fore. The best voices offered new writing styles and ways of thinking about specialized topics. Often these topics were not covered by the mass newspaper or general industry trade. Social networks like Twitter, StumbleUpon and Digg hasten the speed and widespread delivery of these specialized content creators. Within years, social media voices rose to challenge and endanger the traditional news model.
Often the quality of these voices has been called in question when compared to older, more traditional media. The truth about blogs and other forms of new media: The cream of the crop is really good. They have standards of excellence, and the voices are often subject matter experts, even former journalists.
Considering the larger dynamics at play, newspapers that are suffering probably should be. Like their industrial era department store counterparts, they are slow and ineffective. The product is often lacking in relevance.
When was the last time a metropolitan newspaper had a consistently relevant business section for the region day in day out? Or for that matter, when did each individual reader really want all of those sections? On the Internet, we can choose from the best voices in each of our own subject matter interests. Even if it is stamp collecting.
Just like the best department stores, the best newspapers will survive this time. But they will likely need to evolve to some extent and meet the times. And with the economic waters puncturing so many hulls, newspaper veterans may have no choice but to choose a new course.