Here we go again.
The newsprint nostalgia will never end. Those of us who have been fighting for digital transformation since the silly “blogs can’t possibly ever be journalism!” days feel like it is Groundhog Day.
It is 2016, and Twitter is abuzz wondering if the newspaper industry made a “colossal mistake” in adopting a digital-first strategy, thanks to a recent Politico Magazine piece by Jack Shafer.
Shafer cites an academic study from H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim of the University of Texas that argues that digital news is an inferior good that has largely failed to sustain newspaper businesses. If they just would have stuck with print, newspapers would have been far better off than they are today.
Chyi and Tenenboim are exemplary researchers whom we admire, and we don’t think their study is flawed in its methodology. We are also frankly thrilled that Shafer took a look at some academic research on journalism, which happens all too rarely. Chyi and Tenenboim quantify in rigorous detail the travails of the industry, and the numbers demonstrating decline are not in dispute.
But our research on newspapers offers broader context that, in our view, leads to different conclusions from this data.
In a nutshell, the problem wasn’t the strategy. It was the execution.
Chyi and Tenenboim seem quite convinced that a “digital first” strategy was in fact embraced at newspapers. They describe “all the efforts to make digital work” and “the industry’s focus on digital,” and that’s understandable given that is certainly the rhetoric one hears in trade publications and other public pronouncements. But if you have spent time inside newsrooms conducting extensive, long-term ethnographic research, as we have, you know that the reality hasn’t met the rhetoric — especially during earlier days of digital, when the opportunity was ripe.
Steve Buttry, a long-time newsroom innovator now at directing student media at LSU, is brilliant in his response. He writes:
Well, I used to work for a company called Digital First Media and at a newspaper-industry think tank, and I’ve visited more than 100 newsrooms and spoken at more than 100 newspaper-industry conferences and seminars, and I can flatly say that the industry never, ever adopted anything close to a digital-first strategy.
The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.
Exactly. And there is plenty of academic research to back him up on this point.
We have spent the past 11 years studying the factors that inhibit newsroom change (after years of working in the industry ourselves). As researchers, we’ve conducted about 200 interviews and spent weeks and in some cases even months in newsrooms like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Christian Science Monitor, where we’ve returned each year for the past seven years to keep tabs on its ongoing transition away from its daily print edition. Brown also spent 2002-2005 working at the Committee of Concerned Journalists, surveying and visiting newsrooms all over the country on how their daily work matched up with their core values.
The daily reality of “digital first”
We consistently found a huge gap between what newsroom leaders said and what they actually rewarded and praised in the daily operation. And it is primarily culture and embedded assumptions about the right way to do things that inhibited most newsrooms from making meaningful change.
Sure, “digital first” has been a mantra for a long time now. Leaders proclaimed it; memos were sent; quotes were delivered to industry watchers. But we sat through countless daily news meetings in which the only thing discussed was what was going to go on the front page of the print edition. It wasn’t until 2015, a decade after we started studying newsrooms (!!), that the New York Times “retired the system of pitching stories for the print Page 1.”
One newsroom we studied required all of its reporters to blog, but provided no guidance on how those writers were supposed to incorporate those new routines into the daily workflow. Some reporters were chided for breaking news in their blogs instead of the legacy print product — where, they were consistently reminded, the bulk of the revenue came from.
We found that innovation often occurred in isolated pockets of the newsroom, outside of the usual rhythms of the print edition, in places such as the sports sections and photography departments. But without potential for substantive revenue, those experiments drifted without support from above. In the early days, online often worked on its own, and the lessons typically did not filter throughout the larger news operation because, in practice, it was not valued or prioritized by the organization. Traditional journalists who did not want to adapt to new routines often resisted the changes; many felt the immediacy and brevity of the digital medium threatened bedrock journalistic values focused on investigation and verification, even though recent developments have shown how they can enhance those values.
We interviewed people concerned about holding big stories for next morning’s paper. Daily production cycles revolved around print deadlines, and in many cases, still do. Perhaps even more telling, ad sales people had little training for digital. Or in reality, little training for sales at all — many were holdovers from the days when the skillset basically involved picking up the phone and taking advertisers’ orders with little initiative required. By the 1990s, most U.S. newspapers were monopolies in their local markets with profit margins of up to 40 percent.
It’s only natural that when Internet competition arrived in the form of Craigslist and Monster.com, advertisers quickly shifted their business to less expensive, more responsive options.
Focus on the audience, not the platform
Resistance to change is not uncommon across industries and occurs for a whole host of reasons, especially when change is threatening to people’s professional identities or feelings of competence. We aren’t saying there are any easy villains here by any means. It’s not the personal failing of a handful of curmudgeons failing to see the light but the complex interplay of organizational and psychological factors that inhibit the ability to adjust routines to new technologies and rhythms.
Our data and conclusions support Buttry’s contention that you can’t call “digital first” a failed strategy if it was a strategy that was hardly applied in a meaningful way as the industry ventured onto the Internet. These days, progress is finally being made, but in many cases, it may be too late. As Chyi and Tenenboim point out, habits have been formed, and people are used to going to aggregators for news, which has become a plentiful commodity.
Now is the time to dispense with the hand-wringing. More than ever, print versus digital is the wrong way to frame the discussion moving forward. It isn’t about the platform; it’s about focusing on the audience and their needs, thinking about ways to build collaborative spaces, where journalists and the public work together in creative ways to report on their local communities.
Kevin Anderson, a media consultant with experience at Gannett, BBC, and the Guardian, offered one of the fiercest rebuttals to Shafer’s write-up about the research:
This report and Shafer’s cheerleading on its behalf threatens to re-open a relatively settled cultural conflict in newspapers that could de-rail serious, credible attempts to fashion a sustainable future for local newspapers and the in-depth journalism they produce. It’s not helpful during a time of severe stress in the industry, even severe by the standards of the last decade.
We also disagree that print is a superior format for news. Yes, it has that tangible quality to it that makes it feel more reasonable to pay for it, but you can’t interact with it, it doesn’t allow for multimedia formats, you can’t link to broader context, and it isn’t nearly as good at giving you what you want when you want it.
However, Chyi and Tenenboim are right that most local daily websites are a usability disaster. They are slow to load, chock full of distracting ads, hard to read, and lacking in mobile optimization. Staff sizes have been cut to the bone even as the demand for more content has grown, and the race for clicks has produced a lot of thin, fluffy content.
So, yes, it’s no wonder that people are leaving print but not becoming digital subscribers. But again, that is a signed of a failed execution of digital rather than a failure of the Web as a medium for news. People pay for what they value and trust, and that bond between news organization and the community it covers has been broken in many markets.
What should newspapers have done, and what should they do now? Better understand and serve your digital audience. Instead of chasing page views, build relationships and loyalty. Engage readers, and help them participate in news in meaningful ways. Build with, not for. Make the important news more relevant and accessible. Explore diverse revenue streams, such as events and membership. Pay attention to what other scholars have found makes for stickier news.
And for God’s sake, stop pining for the days when newspapers had monopolies in their markets and could virtually print money with their presses. Those days are long gone.