Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The newspaper digital divide

Rick Edmonds writes an informative blog for Poynter Institute, often staying just ahead of the curve on digital initiatives in the newspaper world. One of his latest columns is particularly insightful.

He correctly notes that the newspaper industry has now more or less officially divided into two comps:
  • The digital-first contingent advocates a full commitment to digital-native content, digital ad sales and new products.
  • Another faction (without a similarly catchy descriptor) wants to develop digital and other non-advertising lines of business, but they insist there is a payoff to reinvesting in strong print news reports and business operations as well.
He then focuses on the "digital first" strategy and claims of success by John Paton, the Journal Register CEO who is in high demand on the newspaper conference circuit, a position he's carved out by both sticking rigidly and colorfully to his digital first mantra, and, perversely, because he loves to show his open disdain for anyone who disagrees with him, even in the least.

Edmonds suggests three possible outcomes of the Paton approach: 
  • Digital first is a good fit for Journal Register and, to a degree, MediaNews — but not necessarily for most newspaper companies.
  • Paton is right, and those holding back will regret not moving more quickly.
  • Digital first has been oversold.
I agree with Edmonds' assessment and, not surprisingly, have an idea which of the three is correct -- the latter. Here's what I wrote in reply to his post: 
This is the most thoughtful, balanced (sorry, Fox has despoiled that word for the rest of us) and, in my view, accurate depiction of the "digital divide" that exists among newspapers today. Put us in the second faction you listed -- the lifespan of print is far longer than even some of its most public defenders would have it, and the business model for digital remains, at best, elusive. At the same time, we all need to be looking for new solutions and models.
I'm pleased that there are the Patons and Clark Gilberts of our business, as we do need to break out of our long-held reluctance to experiment and diversify. However, the mistake we are making is turning these bright men into gurus that all of us should blindly follow. Let them go their way and learn what the will, while others take different paths. Then, let's compare notes and go out and try again.
Most concerning about what you wrote is that those of us who do see value in continuing to not just play out the string in print but to invest in it while pursuing promising digital strategies have become silent, both, as you say, because we find it unseemly to criticize our fellow newspaper operators, but also because it's become extremely uncool to advocate for print. Paton is particularly skilled at portraying such people (count me as one) as heads-in-the-sand practitioners of denial. In truth, this is a terribly unfair and and one-dimensional caricature of people in our business who are attempting to meld new models with old, practice meaningful journalism and admit that they don't have all the answers.
There is nothing to be gained by Paton's open disdain for anyone who doesn't follow his lead, nor by not engaging the open debate out of fear that we'll be considered a troglodyte.

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