Friday, March 07, 2008

The Future of the Newspaper

I had the pleasure of listening to John Temple, editor, publisher and president of the Rocky Mountain News speak to some of our Journalism students last week. I’ve written about Mr. Temple and the Rocky a few times before (here and here). He’s an editor that seems to be doing some interesting things with a newspaper in this new media landscape, so I was very interested to hear what he had to say.

The topic he presented on to our students was basically the future of the newspaper (as he currently sees it). I took fairly decent notes, so this will sort of be a “delayed live blog” with a few occasional thoughts from me added in. His session was very interactive with the students, asking them questions and then replying to those, so this will jump around a little (just so everyone’s clear that he’s not disorganized – he was just reacting to their questions).

My notes:

Temple references NPR story he heard this morning on music magazines going out of business.

I actually heard the same story on the way in that morning.

Music is not dying, but business model is dying.

Ask students where they get their music – lots of sources, but few purchase CD’s.

80% of newspaper’s revenue from ads. Can a newspaper survive in this era? Will newspapers be around?

Student brings up reliability issue – that the newspaper is checked. Temple talks about Wikipedia – he uses it all the time.

References study about reliability as compared to Encyclopedia Britannica

He's a big fan of the Internet – self policing mechanism is fascinating. Refining what the truth is.

RMN won’t allow anyone to use Wikipedia as source for article because no authority, but they use it to find other sources that are more primary about a topic – start at Wikipedia, go further.

Boy, does that sound familiar. If the RMN starts at Wikipedia and then goes further, why do schools try to block or ban it?

Here’s the dilemma – most of the news on the Internet – where does the info come from? Taking content from newspapers, AP, Reuters – here comes the problem, you don’t want to read a newspaper, newspaper goes out of business, where does the news come from?

Hmm, I get what he's saying and agree to a certain extent, but I think at least some of the news these days comes from "the people" as opposed to the professionals. I think we're just starting to see that grow, so he might be overstating the case a little.

I (his newspaper) can’t survive without readers and advertisers. About 450 journalists at the 2 Denver newspapers. What if revenue is 1/10 of what it is today – then 45 journalists. Are 45 people enough to give you the info you want to know?

Maybe instead of large news organizations like RMN and Denver Post, lots of specialty organizations linked together in some way

Student asks if that’s inefficient – have to go too many places. Temple talks about aggregating content.

What if I get compensated on number of people that look at my story. Smart people all over the world trying to figure this out.

His big worry is reliability – we all want information we can trust, and if we don’t have a big organization – he’s worried about the future of journalism.

I wonder about this as well. But I wonder if it's a question of the future of journalism, or the future of the business of journalism? Are they one and the same?

Mentions voting in November – where are you going to get the info to help you vote. Journalism is independent (vs. candidates’ website)

Wanted to ask whether he thought the charge that journalists were going too easy on Obama was accurate, but didn't.

Student asks what if the newspapers change to online – totally.

Temple thinks that’s largely what’s going to happen, reduce their costs.

Talks about printing plant – we are a massive manufacturing company – 450,000 a day, stick in a plastic bag, massive distribution company – that’s super expensive. They send someone to every street in the metro area every day – think about that.

If they distribute it over the Internet it's essentially for free – a lot, lot cheaper. They'll lose all the subscription money – but that's only 20% of revenue, offset by cost savings. They use $70 million dollars worth of paper a year.

That's a lot of paper. Now why did I just think of Will?

Transition period – grandparents need a newspaper, but younger generation may not.

On Sundays – not as busy, you can read the paper.

What about if the future news organization that looks like:
On Sunday get a really nice paper.
Then during the week – it's all on the Internet, but then special, high quality print publications for certain audiences: preps publication one day a week, entertainment magazine once a week, sports a couple of times – small newspapers, really high quality.

References craigslist, ebay, monster vs. classifieds in newspaper – it’s a given that the classifieds have moved online – very specific needs/searches. Look at today (Tuesday) – look at size of classified section – maybe 10 pages – not big enough anymore to be really meaningful. Around 1999 about 5 million classified ads a year at RMN, intense marketplace, nothing to compete with them.

We don’t know what the model is going to look like, but we know we can’t afford to keep printing like we do now. He sees the Internet as the center. Paper is not going away – people like print publications, but may not come to you the same way (may be higher quality, but less of it - as in specialty publications mentioned previously)

Mentions YourHub – anybody can share information, starts on the web – post photos, stories, listings, etc. – then published to print – but they select what they publish to print – he likes that model for the future.

Interesting - using "citizens" as their story/data gathering mechanism, then they sort/select/make decisions on what rises to the top.

He’s talked about this before in his column – that they are really changing the way they do things at the Rocky – starts on the web, then to print – readers of the web become their editors. Used to be somebody would point out an error and they would print a small correction a day or two later, now the error is caught on the web, before it goes to print.

Everything will start on the web, then print will have many smaller specialty areas.

New printing technology allows them to print really quickly small batches of publications, new presses allow for micro-jobs.

This is long tail stuff, niche “programming” and marketing.

Tremendous amount of micro-publishing coming out of big web database. Can do a run of 1,000 and it would be economical, wasn't with the old presses.

Think about: Is the value in the newspaper the paper, or is the value the independent, authoritative, verifiable reporting.

Ahh, I think that's the heart of the matter. Where does the value reside? I think that question resonates for me in regards to schools. Where does our value reside?

If it’s the reliability, how can you translate that to this era – the digital world?

Talks about avatars – here’s my personality – I like basketball, wine, politics – will be out there working for me on the web gathering stuff for me.

He’s using the term “avatar” more as a personal digital assistant type concept. He’s also talking about deep personalization.

Student questions whether we are too dependent on technology, won’t be able to think for ourselves.

Temple mentions Redblueamerica. Always two views – get the other side. Mentions stumbleupon – it’s driving traffic to redblueamerica – he finds that fascinating.

I can tell he’s really thinking hard about how this all fits together, how to leverage sites like stumbleupon.

Embrace change find out where it takes you. It will make people smarter.

There’s a lull in the questions, so I ask my question, something along the lines of: You’re talking about deep personalization in your product, meeting the individual needs of your customers, utilizing technology to facilitate that. So what lesson does that hold for schools and educators? What should we be doing?

Big challenge for educators – he’s not obliged to provide building blocks to grow kids like we do – to prepare kids to be successful when you leave here, independent, critically think and learn as you go.

Big problem for educators – talking about moving from school to school, how do they connect – argues somewhat for standardization across schools. Schools need a spine that’s very structured, but individualize from there . . .

I can tell he’s not satisfied with his answer, but he moves on to another question. I hope I’ve spurred him to think a little bit more about this. I can tell he’s intrigued by this and hasn’t made the connection between the disruption in his business caused by technology and the network and a possible similar disruption in education.

This generation is bright, doesn’t agree with “those kids today” – you can do things today that would’ve been impossible when he was growing up.

He asks the students – what’s the media world going to look like? What do you use your portable device for?

Answer: everything is not located anywhere – distributed, folks are not located in the same place geographically – they do everything on Skype.

RMN is a broadcaster today – they produce video, stream video, audio. Traditional TV broadcasters are being eroded just like newspapers. Sees a big database of video and you choose which clips and segments you want to watch. Talks about all of us being news/video producers – but we’re going to need help because it’s splintered, he’ll bring it together somehow.

Larger trend – power being taken from the big companies and being put in your hands – as consumer and creator, playing field has been leveled and we’re all participating in it. But it’s really noisy, no one is organizing it, how do you find things of value, that’s why Google is so valuable right now – they’re doing it somewhat. Google is putting advertisers together with viewers, that’s the traditional role of newspaper.

So how does the Rocky compete with Google?

End of notes.

So, that’s pretty scattered and since it was over a week ago I’ve lost some of my usual brilliant thoughts I had at the time, but hopefully it’s of interest. I walked Mr. Temple out and asked if he would consider coming back and talking to our teachers about the same topic and he seemed interested, but also said his schedule was pretty full. I have an email in to his secretary about trying to get him back out here, we’ll see what happens.

All in all, I still think Mr. Temple and the Rocky have some pretty good insights into how to transform the newspaper business to the digital age – we’ll have to wait and see how successful they are making the transition. I know I’m asking for too much here, but I’m really hoping that my question will spur him to think some more about the impact this could – or should – have on education.


  1. I am almost sure that you have seen this video. This post reminded me about it.

  2. @cmoor4 - Yep. There's also an updated version, Epic 2015 - both available here.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Hope it's ok if I comment...
    I really like the question about where the value lies. This is especially important when looking to innovate current school products and policies.
    When thinking at moving paperless, using more audio books, or how products like the Kindle or the iPod can change how we read books, it is great to start with the question about it's current value.
    Jeffrey Mordan
    The Philadelphia School