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Betwixt and Between
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Ownership changes at The Washington Post and Boston Globe have many people speculating anew about the future of newspapers. But whatever happens to these great publications probably won’t mean much to you, me, or the paper that carries this column.
The Globe and WaPo, both of which I’ve written for in the past, are betwixt and between. They’re not quite as big as The New York Times or Wall Street Journal, which have muscled their way into charging high cover prices and erecting successful paywalls, while operating as true national dailies. Yet, they’re not as small as hundreds of local papers across America that face different challenges in coverage and marketing.
All papers, big and small, share the same history: people used to buy more copies than they do now and relied on newspapers for hard news, plus classified ads and other ingredients that were exclusive to print. And most papers, regardless of size, will share a similar future: a digital world in which consumers get content electronically and pay a fair price for quality news coverage.
The problem is the present. What’s the best strategy for the next decade or so? Should newspapers allow the print-to-digital conversion to evolve naturally, or should they take steps in coverage, staffing and pricing to try and speed ahead — perhaps before the marketplace is ready?
For large regional dailies, like the Globe and WaPo, the situation is pressing. Print circulation is dropping fast, and digital formats have not picked up enough of the slack. Yet, the cost of properly covering all of New England, in the case of the Globe, and all of government and the Washington region, in the case of the Post, is enormous.
There are about two dozen U.S. dailies with circulation of 250,000 or higher that fall into this general category, but few have the staffing demands and coverage mandates of the Globe and WaPo. The Denver Post, for example, with circulation over 400,000, covers a wide, yet manageable territory in the Rocky Mountain West. It strives for solid reporting, but its writers and columnists don’t have to compete on the national stage like those in Boston and D.C.
It’s likely that the Globe’s and WaPo’s new owners will continue the evolution that has already begun — closing far-flung bureaus and narrowing the focus. Digital operations are also likely to be improved, especially at the Post, where the website has been painfully slow to develop. Jeffrey Bezos, the founder of Amazon, certainly has the smarts to fix that.
In my view, Bezos and the Globe’s new owner, John Henry, who also owns the Red Sox, should immediately join forces and market their content jointly to all digital subscribers outside 100-mile zones around Washington and Boston. They should reach out to the San Jose Mercury News, which produces nationally significant coverage of Silicon Valley, and perhaps to the Los Angeles Times, for its entertainment industry content. Together, the four papers could offer digital content for a single subscription price that would attract a sizeable national audience without affecting each paper’s ability to operate locally.
And where does that leave thousands of smaller dailies? In pretty good spots, actually, provided they don’t cut back on local coverage and don’t overprice or under-deliver on the print version until the market is ready for digital.
Smaller papers tend to promote their websites more and more, without actually changing them to meet the needs of 24/7 readers. Too many sites still use the printed paper’s production cycle as an online format. In fact, the model shouldn’t be print, it should be all-news radio. Few local papers are staffed to cover, say, a power outage at 3 a.m., but they should be.
The excitement in news depends on action by the very big, like The Times or Journal, and the much smaller, like your hometown daily.
The Globe and WaPo are newsworthy right now because a lot of journalists care about them, as do readers in the Northeast. They don’t matter much in the industry’s larger scheme of things.