‘The death of the American newspaper is the elephant in the room’
“Newspapers that are poorly run are going to fail, and that’s going to create a tremendous business opportunity for everyone here.”
That was the message from Merrill Brown, who helped launch MSNBC.com in 1996, during a morning session at the Kelsey Group’s Local Marketplace conference in Seattle today. To no one’s surprise, Brown didn’t mince words. (If you’ve seen him talk at a conference, you know you’re going to get an unvarnished view of the media world.) He challenged the group to focus on change and innovation and said he was happy to be at this conference, especially compared with newspaper, broadcast and other traditional media conferences.
“Newspaper, TV and magazine companies are some of the saddest places you can walk through these days,” Brown said. “The death of the American newspaper is the elephant in the room. We are about to enter an extraordinarily turbulent time in American media, not unlike what the American auto industry - among others - has gone through. And, it may not be a surprise, but the U.S. newspaper business isn’t covering this news very well.”
Brown said this is a time of “extraordinary change” that presents “extraordinary opportunity” for local online companies, which 20 years ago was limited to yellow pages and newspapers. Now, of course, the web has opened up this market to a dizzying number of players and both yellow pages and newspapers need to adapt. The yellow pages companies were at this conference, learning about new ideas and business models. But where are the newspapers (and other local publishing and broadcast companies)?
Conference organizers told me that 475 people attended this week. I glanced through the attendee list and found FIVE newspaper brands/companies represented (that were not journalists covering the conference, like John Cook whose excellent coverage can be found here).
Five?! I know budgets are tight, but come on! This is where the new business models are going to come from, and yet only 5 newspaper companies are engaged in this conversation? All the competition is here (Google, AutoTrader, etc.) but other than panel presentations by the Seattle Times and L.A. Times, all the talk about newspapers echoed what Brown was telling the crowd: newspapers are going away, so who’s going to replace them?
To me, that’s the saddest part of what’s going on in newspapers today. The pace of innovation on the content side of the news business seems to be far outpacing the pace of innovation on the business side. And that doesn’t bode well for the business as a whole.