Tuesday, April 24, 2012

America's newspaper business grew with a printing press strapped to the back of a wagon; maybe it's time to take that approach once again

I recently had a rather animated discussion of the news business with a newspaper manager, unhappy with my snarky comments about their approach to digital publishing. "So what the hell would you do?" this person asked, though he didn't wait for an answer as he resumed telling me of their 'digital first' approach to the news business.

It's too bad I didn't get a chance to answer because I've always thought the answer was to "strap the printing press to the back of the wagon and go west."

That answer, in case you want to know, originates in this wonderful graphic by the Rural West Initiative, Bill Lane Center for the American West, at Stanford University. I created an animated GIF of the Flash-based graphic so I could always refer to it – and here it is:

Click on photo for larger version
Maybe it's the romantic in me, but I really like the image of the newspaper entrepreneur heading out to try his luck at newspapering in the old west.

The relavant point here, though, is that someone made that printing press – that was probably where the money way, rather than printing newspapers themselves.

Today, far too many news executives are not turning to the guy trying to sell them a press, but are instead turning to vendors who want to actually make their newspaper for them. You see, in the old days, buying a press put you in business. After that you would have to buy paper and ink, but basically you were in the news business.

Today's equivalent would be the newspaper that invests in its own digital media by staffing up with digital developers, buying digital publishing software or solutions. But rather than invest in their own production, many are choosing to outsource their production to third party vendors. It would the equivalent of the old west publisher going to an existing printer to have their paper's printed. It happened, I'm sure, but the only one who made money on the deal was the printer.

Today's media executives are, well, media executives – rather than media entrepreneurs. Rather than strapping the press to the back of the wagon, they are heading out on horseback hoping their is a printer in the next town.

If the future of digital is the web, mobile and tablets, publishers need to own and control the production process. They need to put down roots and stake their claim (OK, that was a bit much). Otherwise, they are just renters.