Many observers, inside and outside the industry, blame the paper delivery format for the newspaper industry’s sustained declines in circulation. In earlier posts I’ve tried to suggest that this view is at odds with the tremendous continuing success of print in domains outside of metro daily newspapers. But if print isn’t the problem then what explains the ongoing decline in newspaper circulation?
Content is Culprit
Readers interested in this question would be well served to read Vin Crosbie’s answers (here and here). Vin is perhaps the most articulate proponent of the view that content is culprit – people are subscribing to the print newspaper in ever-diminishing numbers because they find the content less and less valuable.
Think about it – newspapers have been around for perhaps 400 years. For the vast majority of that time they were your only option for learning about the world. The advent of radio and TV brought new options, but neither was a great substitute for written text. The explosion of content – especially written content – on the web in the last 10 years, however, has brought the first adequate substitute for meeting the needs historically met only by newspapers.
In this environment of rapidly expanding content choices newspapers have responded by, well, not really responding at all.
The problem is this: newspapers offer a one-size-fits-all package of the “leading” stories of the day, where “leading” is defined by editors trying to appease a wildly diverse set of readers. The diversity of readers combined with the enormous set of content options forces compromises – I’m not interested in Paris Hilton nor the obituaries yet they give me both because some plurality of readers in my market is interested in them. Further, the same constraints that force editors to give me Paris Hilton also prevent them from giving me other content in which I am intensely interested. Vin has used the example of professional soccer – there are 600,000 soccer fans in the greater NYC area, yet the NY Times will only cover soccer during the World Cup, if at all.
The web requires neither of these compromises. I can easily satisfy my curiosity on almost any subject and avoid all the subjects in which I have no interest. In short, reading on the web offers me a higher Return on Attention (ROA) – with less investment of time and attention I can satisfy more of my information interests.
The ROA gap between newspapers and the web continues to widen as technologies like RSS readers, personalized homepages, twitter streams and the like proliferate.
The economic principle here is opportunity cost. When there were few alternatives newspapers were a miraculously useful source of information. As more personally relevant alternatives have multiplied, and newspapers have remained one-size-fits-all, the opportunity cost of spending my limited reading time with a newspaper has become harder to justify.
The good news for newspapers, who rely on print for perhaps 90% of their revenues, is that print competes well with the web (see previous posts) when the content is personally relevant. The editor of a college newspaper or The Economist has a sufficiently homogeneous (at least in terms of information interests) audience that their one-size-fits-all print products still work very well. But the editor of a metro daily newspaper is not blessed with serving an audience of such uniform interests.
For that reason I believe that newspapers must begin personalizing their content. Readers will continue to seek ever higher returns on their investment of their ever more divided attention. Newspapers can meet those evolving needs with personalization or they can continue to hemorrhage subscribers.
Talk of personalization inevitably prompts many objections. I’ll come back to them in future posts but for now I’ll merely suggest that there are very satisfactory answers to all of them. Here is a partial list of objections I’ve encountered (and felt myself) over the years:
- What happens to serendipity in a world of personalization?
- As an editor my duty is not just to give readers what they want, but also to give them their “Brussels sprouts”.
- It is too costly to personalize print newspapers.
- Even if you can produce personalized newspapers, delivery would be impossible.
- You can already do this on the web, why bother with print?