What Are Newspapers Selling?

Time to mine the depth and knowledge niche

Hired by Sam Zell to find innovative ways to market Tribune’s newspapers, and for the moment, Abrams is among the more controversial actors in the drama of American newspapers at the start of the new century. Regardless of what you think of Abrams and his ideas, there is a more fundamental question to consider: What is Abrams selling? Indeed, what are newspapers around the country selling these days?

Every few weeks, it seems, we read about another daily “transforming” itself, searching for a formula that will compel people to read it and, hopefully, go spend a lot of time on its Web site. These overhauls are often accompanied by a memo from the editor that explains how the changes are designed to help the newsroom “do more with less.”

That’s because the reality beneath the rhetoric is grim: fewer reporters, shorter stories, smaller newsholes, less institutional memory, more sections with titles like “Fun & Games” (The Sacramento Bee), and more Web features devoted to celebrities (Los Angeles Times). “Hyperlocalism,” which tends to have pride of place in these memos, has become the go-to strategy—last recourse?—for newspapers whose ambitions are rapidly contracting.

A broad newsroom survey, released in July by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, suggests that newspapers are becoming “niche” publications—and based on the evidence in that survey, and some of those “transformation” memos, that niche isn’t just local, but also softer and more superficial. Slate’s Jack Shafer recently observed that newspapers are losing their role as the central purveyors of information-as-social currency to the Internet. He’s right, and to us this underscores the idea that offering readers a collection of cocktail-party nuggets and some good recipes and travel tips is precisely the wrong strategy. The newspaper industry needs a good salesman, but it also needs some courageous thinking about what it’s selling. The fear-driven approaches emerging in many newsrooms today are not the answer.

Part of the solution may lie in the evolution of new ownership models that break newspapers free from the likes of Sam Zell, who has made it clear that public-service journalism is not a priority; but part of the answer—as well as part of the problem—can be found in an ethnographic study commissioned by The Associated Press and released in June, which chronicled the news-consumption habits of eighteen young adults around the world. What the study showed was that these millennials tend to skim along on a superficial diet of headlines, isolated facts, and brief updates, often digested while checking e-mail or otherwise multitasking. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the study subjects claimed to be frustrated by the paltry fruits of their grazing: “Participants . . . show signs of shallow and erratic news consumption; however the study also suggested that people wanted more depth and were trying to find it.”

It’s tempting to say, “Well, put down your damn BlackBerry, log off Facebook, and read a book (on the Kindle, if you want), or an investigative series (online, if you’d like).” Information increasingly comes to us with little effort, and this may breed a passivity that further undermines the idea that it takes some work to be well informed. “Going for depth,” the AP study concluded, “necessitated more attention to the activity than these subjects tended to give it.”

But rather than blame the reader, what if newspapers—if they are destined to be niche reads—took those young readers at their word and claimed the depth-and-knowledge niche and sold that? Despite their diminished resources, they could still dominate the field. Such a niche could even fit with a hyperlocal approach. Lee Abrams strikes us as an enthusiastic salesman—we’d love to see what he could do with a product that readers both want and need. 

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.