I am never buying another physical newspaper again. Neither will my sons.
I say that not as someone who’s willfully ignorant but as a news junkie who subscribes to more than 600 feeds in Google Reader, including those from The New York Times, San Jose Mercury News, and USA Today. What’s killing the newspaper business — with thousands of jobs lost and even the Washington Post Co.’s reporting its first loss in 37 years — is its inability to reach people like me.
There are no silver bullets, but why doesn’t the newspaper business take a lesson from the tech world? Start iterating — fast. “This is essentially research, and in research the dead ends are valuable, too,” says Scott Rosenberg, cofounder of the online magazine Salon. “The most important thing to do right now is launch as many possible experiments in as many possible directions.” Thankfully, some people have started doing just that.
When I got an Amazon Kindle, one of the first things I did was load a bunch of newspapers onto the reader, which are delivered wirelessly. When my 14-year-old son, Patrick, bought an iPhone 3G this summer, what was one of the first apps he put on it? The New York Times. These mobile devices offer an alternative distribution channel to newsprint. And they have the potential to generate subscription revenue. For example, the Times‘ software architect Derek Gottfrid showed me his Times Machine, an app that lets you search and read old copies of the paper. I’d pay for that.
As mobile devices get slicker, the advertising that supports digital content needs to evolve too. You should see the interactive iPhone ads that AdMob, a mobile-ad network, has created. They’re not only innovative — you flick them with your finger, and they open up with an animation — but they actually work, getting many more clicks per 1,000 viewers than static mobile offerings, says CEO Omar Hamoui.
Advertisers want to put their brands with content that has large and engaged audiences — and that’s going to be breaking news. If I were running a newspaper, I’d get every reporter a cell phone capable of broadcasting video to the Internet using a service such as Qik, Kyte, Flixwagon, or Mogulus. Then I’d stream compelling live events — crime scenes, postgame locker-room interviews, new-product introductions — and package analysis on top of it. One encouraging early trial has been conducted by New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, which has a daily video newscast at noon.
Every experiment should help rebuild newspapers’ once-dominant role in their communities. Topix, a Web service funded by the Gannett, McClatchy, and Tribune companies, focuses on hyperlocal news and generates 125,000 comments a day, according to CEO Chris Tolles. Newspapers could cater to communities of interest as well, such as stay-at-home moms, and even have them fund the news they want.
In investigative journalism, which isn’t cheap, a number of experiments are under way. “The most promising,” says Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, “are TalkingPointsMemo.com, funded by ads and reader support; Pro Publica, funded by rich people; and Spot.us, which runs on crowdfunding.” Spot.us launches this fall, letting readers vote with their dollars for stories they want produced. Could newspapers co-opt one of these models to fund the news?
Now is the time to find new ways to connect with readers and serve advertisers … before the next generation gives up not just on newsprint, but also on newspaper brands.
Watch Scoble’s interviews with execs from The New York Times, Meebo, and Topix at FastCompany.TV.