Monday, April 13, 2009
Making Old Media New Again - Give Readers Insight into Tomorrow
By L. GORDON CROVITZ
It's make-or-break time for many newspapers. Denver and Seattle recently lost dailies, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times are both in bankruptcy, and owners of the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle threaten closure. One reader mourned the loss of her local newspaper in Connecticut by lamenting that she had gone from living in a city to living off just another exit on Interstate 95. As comedian Stephen Colbert put it last week, "The impending death of the newspaper industry: Where will they print the obituary?"
Creative destruction is blowing hard through the news industry, as digital technology gives readers access to endless sources of news but undermines the ability of publishers to support news departments. City newspapers are no longer the dominant way people get news or the main way advertisers reach consumers. The recession is accelerating these trends, with advertising so soft even Web-only news operations, which don't have the legacy costs of print, are now struggling to support journalism.
As the remaining city newspapers rethink themselves, editors and publishers might consult a road map for how newspapers can live alongside new media that was drawn up more than 50 years ago by Bernard Kilgore, outlined in a new biography by former Journal executive Richard Tofel, "Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal and the Invention of Modern Journalism."
Kilgore had remarkable judgment early about the journalistic issue of our day: how readers use old media, new media and both. When Kilgore became managing editor of the Journal in 1941, he inherited a business model that technology had undermined. Founded in 1889 to provide market news and stock prices to individual investors, the Journal lost half its circulation as this basic information became widely available.
Kilgore observed that then new media such as radio meant market news was available in real time. Some cities had a dozen newspapers that had gained the Journal's once-valuable ability to report share prices.
The Journal had to change. Technology increasingly meant readers would know the basic facts of news as it happened. He announced, "It doesn't have to have happened yesterday to be news," and said that people were more interested in what would happen tomorrow. He crafted the front page "What's News -- " column to summarize what had happened, but focused on explaining what the news meant.
On the morning after Pearl Harbor, other newspapers recounted the facts already known to all the day before through radio. The Journal's page-one story instead began, "War with Japan means industrial revolution in the United States." It outlined the implications for the economy, industry and commodity and financial markets.
Kilgore led the Journal's circulation to one million by the 1960s from 33,000 in the 1940s by adapting the newspaper to a role reflecting how people used different media for news. His rallying cry was, "The easiest thing in the world for a reader to do is to stop reading."
Business and financial news is different from the general news focus of city newspapers, but in 1958 the owners of the New York Herald Tribune approached Kilgore for help. Mr. Tofel uncovered a five-page memo Kilgore wrote them on how to keep city newspapers essential to readers. The Herald Tribune, he wrote, is "too much a newspaper that might be published in Philadelphia, Washington or Chicago just as readily as in metropolitan New York." Kilgore urged the "compact model newspaper." Readers valued their time, so the newspaper should have just one section, with larger editions on Sunday when people had more time to read.
His advice was clearly ahead of its time. The owners didn't heed it, and the Herald Tribune went out of business in 1967. But his observations on what readers want from city newspapers may be even more true in today's online world. Readers increasingly know yesterday what happened yesterday through Web sites, television and news alerts.
"Kilgore's first critical finding," Mr. Tofel wrote, was "that readers seek insight into tomorrow even more than an account of yesterday." This "may only now be getting through to many editors and publishers." Indeed, at a time when print readership is declining, The Economist, with its weekly focus on interpretation, is gaining circulation. The Journal continues to focus on what readers need, growing the number of individuals paying for the newspaper and the Web site.
If readers would prefer more-compact city newspapers, a less-is-more approach could help cut newsprint, printing, distribution and other costs that don't add to the journalism. Newspaper editors could craft a new, forward-looking role for print, alongside the what's-happening-right-now focus of digital news.
There's a lot of experimentation by editors around the country to find out what people want from their print and online news. For city newspapers on the brink, the Barney Kilgore approach might deliver some badly needed good news.