Failure of imagination

So this is what passes for innovation in the newspaper industry? Taking the Times-Picayune, with its passionate daily print readership, from seven days to three is the best idea we’ve got?

Surely we could do better.

Those who style themselves realists point to the fact that newspapers like the Times-Picayune lose money most days of the week they print. The money’s in the fat days like Sunday; Monday’s a loser. Tally it up, and the decision is clear: Cut Monday. And why stop there? Why not cut Tuesday, cut Thursday and cut Saturday? Job done; here’s your new, “more robust” New Orleans Times-Picayune, as the management memo styled it.

What that ruthless logic overlooks, though, is the value of the readership habit. Generations of newspaper readers have grown accustomed to reading their paper every morning or afternoon. That daily habit forms a powerful bond between readers and their paper, and you disrupt it at your peril.

We certainly learned that in Frederick. Three years after cutting out our Monday publication, the lack of a Monday paper was far and away our top reader complaint.

The simple math of the hard realists also overlooks the basic reality that many businesses lose money some times of the day, some days of the week and even many months of the year. Outside of a few key buying periods, especially Christmas, many stores don’t cover operating costs every day of the year, or even every day of the week. Restaurants may scrape by early in the week to make their money as the weekend approaches. Yet these businesses stay open even during lean hours and lean days. After all, a customer who finds a business shuttered on Tuesday may go elsewhere on Friday, too.

The hope in New Orleans is that even if readers go elsewhere for news four days a week, they’ll still come back to the Times-Picayune on the other three. Maybe so. Maybe their readers are more flexible than ours were, or maybe there are fewer alternatives for them to choose from.

But what’s profoundly discouraging is that publishers in New Orleans, Michigan and elsewhere have embraced such radical surgery before attempting other therapies.

Would a tabloid format lower production costs enough to support at least weekday publication? What about differential pricing, for advertisers and for subscribers? Where are the radically re-conceived newspapers that try to meet readers where they are today? Why no experiments with targeted-interest papers, or cafeteria-model papers? Why not a three-day core news product with up-sells for a Business Monday edition, an Entertainment Friday edition, and so on?

Maybe none of these ideas would be enough to save a paper like the Times-Picayune. I only wish someone was trying. Otherwise, if the Internet and the economy don’t kill newspapers, we might just do it ourselves first.

Related readings:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *