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The Newspaper is Dying. We Shouldn't Save It.

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The announcement hit our community hard. A forum was held a few days after the news broke to allow residents to speak their mind. It was rough.

And Youngstown isn’t alone.

A study from the University of North Carolina determined that between 2004 and 2018 some 1,800 papers had closed, leaving gaping “news deserts” all around the country. 200 counties have been left without a newspaper. 50% of counties in the country have only one.

Since the report was published last year, the authors found that roughly 200 more papers have disappeared — including The Vindicator.

“We have not seen a situation like this anywhere else in at least the past 15 years,” said Penny Abernathy, the study’s author, on Youngstown’s situation.

However, this isn’t a newspaper sob-story. Yes, newspapers have provided vital public services to communities across the country for centuries. But whether it’s the traditional daily newspaper that’s delivered to your doorstep or the modern digital outlet, one thing is clear:

Newspapers need to die. Every last one of them.

Newspapers aren’t made for readers.

What most fail to understand about newspapers is that it is not simply the business model that is obsolete: rather, everything is obsolete. — Ben Thompson

One of the defining traits of a newspaper is “universality”: the idea that newspapers should not be limited by topic or audience. If it’s not universal, it’s not a newspaper.

Obviously, I am a strong advocate for news. I am not an advocate of universality. All that is unique to a newspaper is valuable — the rest isn’t.

Universality made sense in a world where a newspaper was the go-to place to get your news for two reasons:

  1. Accessibility. Just three decades ago, it wasn’t easy or cheap to access a wide range of niche publications like it is today. Now, every one of those publications is free to anyone with an internet connection.
  2. Breadth of advertisers. Newspapers wanted to cater to as many interests as possible because of advertising. Jihad’s Jam Shop wouldn’t want to advertise to hardcore political buffs, but we’d definitely want to target foodies — and the same newspaper has a food section. Thus, all advertisers went to the same mega-publication to get customers.

Neither of those things are necessary anymore, but the newspaper hasn’t caught up.

Today, there are thousands of publications on any section of a newspaper, and at leastdozens that are of higher quality. I’ve got Buzzfeed for lifestyle, The Athletic for sports, Politico for politics, TechCrunch for tech… so what do I need a general-purpose paper for?

“Subscriptions will save the newspaper!”

Proponents of the newspaper will tell you that the newspaper itself isn’t the problem, but the business model: papers that rely on advertising are in the hole, they say, but the ones who have shifted to a digital subscription model (The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.) are doing great!

Wrong. Subscriptions don’t work for everyone. 

Nieman Lab makes a great point:

Local newspapers have already hit this roadblock: While the Times, Post, and Journal build subscriber bases in the millions, most metro dailies have struggled to go far into the five figures. Only two non-national papers — the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe — have more than 100,000 paying digital subscribers. Aggregation theory holds that…the Internet tends to aggregate power in the hands of a few large players. That’s benefited…the Times and the Post. What about everyone else?

Just as Big Tech eats up its competition to survive, so too will Big News. There’s no reason to subscribe to multiple newspapers if all of my information is in one of them, just as it’s pointless to subscribe to a Facebook alternative if all of my friends are on Facebook.

And a monopoly on journalism is a nightmare.

But what if publications did the opposite? What if journalism went really, really small?

That’s the future.

David Will Beat Goliath

To be clear: I don’t think we will replace the newspaper. I believe that something entirely new will emerge.

One of my favorite essays is “1000 True Fans”. Here’s a quote:

1,000 true fans is an alternative path to success other than stardom. Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum bestseller hits, blockbusters, and celebrity status, you can aim for direct connection with a thousand true fans. On your way, no matter how many fans you actually succeed in gaining, you’ll be surrounded not by faddish infatuation, but by genuine and true appreciation. It’s a much saner destiny to hope for. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.
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Creators get most of their sales/support from their “1000 true fans”.

I wrote about this a bit in my Instagram post introducing this topic. It’s the same philosophy that has ruled the world of startups for years: find a small niche that reallywants what you’re making, make it absolutely perfect for them, and success will follow.

Look at the rise of microbrands: small brands that get started on Instagram or Pinterest and are constantly engaging with their customers. For example, I follow everything Paliroots does on social media and buy their products regularly because I love the founders, their worldview, and their clothes — I feel like a connection to the brand.

Journalism is following the lead. I can follow individuals on Twitter and Instagram and subscribe to specialty newsletters to get all of the content I need. There are writers with thousands of monthly subscribers paying for niche content on a topic that interests them. I can curate my feeds with the voices that I want to hear, not the voices that publishers think will get them the most views.

The future of journalism lies in its newfound humanity.

Establishment journalists are joining the movement as well. Entrepreneur and academic Phillip Smith notes:

Many reporters have a beat or two that they’re passionate about, and yet shrinking newsrooms have meant that many reporters need to report on increasingly broad topics to justify their salaries. The sentiment “I wanted to write the stories that I believed were important and being overlooked” came up several times in the interviews.

And it’s not just solo writers. Look at The Athletic: it’s a publication with dozens of writers putting out quality sports journalism on the subscription model. They key, though, is that they’re only putting out sports journalism. They’ve found they’re niche. They’re killing their niche. And writers are fleeing their publications en mass to chase the opportunity.

“But won’t that just make echo chambers worse?”

A common criticism of this model is that it will worsen echo chambers: environments where a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own.

That argument could be made. It’s impossible to know for sure until we see this model scale (or fail). But here’s why I think small, subscription-based journalism is better than the status quo:

  1. News through networks. Almost all of my news on the recent Sudan Uprisings was from friends on social media. As opposed to getting my news from a singular source, I got it from a network of experts. I felt more involved. I had a direct point of contact where I could donate and make a difference. I could play a role in spreading the word. Echo chambers falter when your information is coming from a network of humans, each with their own opinions.
  2. You understand the author. The vast majority of the time, we don’t pay attention to who is writing the things we read — just what. It’s easier to fall into an echo chamber when you don’t know where the author is coming from. If you’re paying an author or a small outlet, you’ve done your research. You know their biases. It’s more human.
  3. You already pick and choose what you read. I’ve never read an entire daily newspaper in my life. I barely read one or two articles a day on a single publication. We only read what we’re interested in. We build our own echo chambers. But refer to point 2: it’s okay if we are aware of all of the biases involved, including our own.

The future of journalism is tiny. The newspaper just doesn’t belong.

Bye, Bye Newspapers

In my mind, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the local news outlets of the future is to take advantage of this trend and carve out their niche(s).

But they won’t be leaders in this movement, and that means the field is wide open for the rest of us.

I’m excited about the future. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment and let’s talk!