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How to save your local newspaper

Six steps for staving off the death of print
By STEVEN STARK  |  February 12, 2009


It's no secret that daily-newspaper journalism is in huge trouble. The demographics are terrible; the young don't read daily papers. The Internet has radically altered the distribution of news and classifieds, as millions have abandoned the newspaper (with its daily cost) for the free delivery of news and personal advertising on the Net. Meanwhile, newspapers' ad base has been devastated by the current financial crisis.

The response of almost every paper in the country has been to cut personnel — and then keep cutting. The predictable result has been the opposite of what's needed: most papers are now far less worth reading than they were a decade ago — this at a time when they obviously need to become even more attractive.

What can they do? Here's a six-step road to revival for your favorite local paper (the nationals, such as the New York Times, get their own revival plan in a later column):

1)If further cuts are absolutely necessary, stop using voluntary buyouts for cuts and start laying off people. Sad but true: buyouts may be fairer, but the people who accept them are often those with the journalistic talent to find a job elsewhere. That leaves papers with a large collection of their least-productive employees. That's no way to start a revival.

2)Ruthlessly eliminate from the paper anything that can be produced better and more cheaply elsewhere. Again, unfortunately, that means a lot of what many daily papers produce at home will be outsourced, so to speak — to wire services, freelancers, and Web services like the new Global Post. Eliminate in-house production of all national and international news, most business news, and all movie, TV, and music reviews. The same goes for all columns that don't deal with local situations — unless the columnist has an exceptional national voice.

These subjects will still be in the paper. The paper's staff just won't produce them.

3)Beef up local and sports coverage. This is what regional daily papers can uniquely provide. And they should. That means that serious thought should be given to turning such papers as the Boston Globe or BostonHerald (my two local newspapers) into sports papers with news sections, rather than the other way around.

The truth is that sports papers around the world are still hugely successful. Yes, the National failed here almost two decades ago, but that's because Americans follow their sports locally, not nationally. A local version could well prove a success.

4)Follow the example of The Week magazine and provide daily readable syntheses of the news. There's too much information these days for any reader to keep up with. That's where something like The Week — a weekly magazine that entertainingly amalgamates the news, — or Slate's daily condensation of what's in the major papers, or the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix of the best of the nation's sports columns, comes in. Readers would love to get a morning collection of "the best and the brightest" on their doorstep in a form they could read quickly. There's no reason why newspapers can't produce it for them.

5)Provide a literate alternative to the Internet. Here the model is the English Guardian's G2 section or the Globe's Ideas section on Sunday. Give the readers a short daily magazine, with a sassy article or two that helps set the agenda and gets people talking. This could bolster or even replace the op-ed page, which, frankly, has lost much of its utility. (Isn't the Internet just one big op-ed page?)

6)Having done steps one through five, charge a Web fee. In retrospect, one of the biggest mistakes newspapers ever made was giving their product away for free on the Internet. Somehow, that decision has to be rescinded to make things work.

Can local papers charge something for what they're offering now on the Web? Well, yeah — but not much. But let's say local papers beef up their sports sections, as suggested. Would there be an audience willing to pay more for that? Quite likely, particularly in sports-mad towns. And there might be some incentive for individual papers along the line to develop types of expertise they could sell — say, rugby for one paper or international news in India and Pakistan for another, and so on.

Will this work? Well, the truth is nothing is going to work immediately in the midst of a financial crisis. But once that begins to recede, the model outlined above at least gives newspapers a 21st-century model for which they can strive.

Right now, newspapers are in a horrible downward cycle of mindless cuts, which produces mindless journalism. Even if they manage to survive at the end of all of this, what difference will it make if no one wants to read them?

To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to Steven Stark can be reached at

Related: Will the Globe survive?, Man bites newspaper, Weakened watchdogs, More more >
  Topics: Stark Ravings , Media, Media, Newspapers,  More more >
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Re: How to save your local newspaper
Steven -  As we can expect from you, a very interesting and thought-provoking piece.I'm particularly intrigued by your "sports-paper" concept.  Boston and Chicago are two truly sports-mad towns.  (The difference, of course, is that your teams sometimes actually win!)  And both have daily tabloids that struggle to compete with the dominant broadsheet.I can definitely see the Herald and the Sun-Times flipping their paper and putting a beefed-up sports section, with provocative columnists they might add from local sports-radio stations, in front.  The "regular" news might lead from the back, where the sports is now.Hey, they gotta find something that works.
By Vic in Chicago on 02/16/2009 at 7:54:08

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