Could newspapers have survived the Web?

Much has been written lately about the failure of newspapers to adapt to the Web, but was there anything they could do?

Seth Godin Seth Godin

The man who killed newspapers is supposed to be Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, the Internet publication that has at the very least helped dismantle the newspaper classifieds business.

Newmark, though, typically denies Craigslist pushed newspapers to the brink of extinction, which is where they most certainly appear to be today. Newmark will tick off plenty of factors that contributed to the fall, not least of which was "they refused to speak truth to power."

That may or may not be true, but it's hard to miss how badly newspapers misplayed the Internet and a lot has been written lately about that. Seth Godin, a noted pundit, author, and the founder of Yoyodyne, has an interesting point of view on the travails of The New York Times. He argues that a decade ago, the Times failed to recognize the huge opportunity of using the Web to extend its brand.

He said among the ways the Times blew it was by not buying or creating competitors to Zagats or Yelp. "That's a quarter of a billion dollars worth of value that the paper with the most influential restaurant reviews page didn't create," he said.

Godin scolds the Times for "abdicating" its role as the last word on book reviews and he suggests Times, should dramatically boost the number of stringers it uses so it can offer readers hyper-intensive coverage about niche subjects that matter to them. Godin's point here seems to be that the Times, like most general newspapers, was traditionally restricted in its coverage because of limits on space. Only so many stories could fit in a daily paper.

A Web publication doesn't worry about space.

"Why doesn't the paper have 10,000 stringers, each with a blog, each angling to be picked up by the central site?" Godin asks. " You wouldn't have to pay much per story to build a semi-pro cadre of writers and reporters. When you organize the news (delivering unique perspectives to people who want to hear them) you influence the conversation."

Nobody has chronicled the Times' financial crisis as thoroughly or with as much unrestrained glee as the blog Silicon Alley Insider. Henry Blodget, the Silicon Alley's founder and former tech analyst turned journalist after a scandal drove him from Wall street, argues that the Times' cost structure is bloated with big salaries and newsprint costs that no longer make sense when competing against Web publications...like his for example.

I worked for newspapers for 10 years. I love the Times. But there's no arguing the company and many other papers appear to be stuck in the past. I visited the Times' relatively new Manhattan headquarters a couple of months ago. All that glass and steel shooting into the sky, the gift shop and polished wood floors, made me wonder if the place wasn't a huge and enormously expensive tombstone for the newspaper industry.

I asked Blodget several months ago what was the smartest thing he'd done this year. He responded: "Not buy newspaper stocks."

 

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