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Posted by on Jul 4, 2009 in Media | 2 comments

How To Save The Newspaper

Leaders in the news field joined Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson for his “the Future of Journalism” panel at the Institute’s Ideas Festival in Colorado last week. Politico’s report on it is headlined, Save journalism? Beats us, panel says:

As is usually the case with such discussions, the group didn’t break any serious ground in determining how to save a troubled journalism industry. In fact, many had to admit that they had no idea what to do.

“We will look at anything and are taking a wait-and-see approach,” said [Washington Post publisher Katharine] Weymouth. “We think about a ton of things. Everything is open.” When asked whether print papers will always be around, Weymouth said, “I don’t know. I don’t predict. Nobody knows.”

What everybody did know, however, is that the old days of journalism are long gone.

“We got spoiled,” said Weymouth.

“We used to be really fat and bloated,” said [Time’s Josh] Tyrangiel.

Fat and bloated is right. Perhaps these folks were at the wrong panel.

A far less stellar panel was held this past May at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School day long confab on The Newspaper Crisis. Jim Willse, now the editor at the Newark Star Ledger, spoke at the second session.

Willse described a future that looks pretty right on to me. In fairness, he calls it “a very rough sketch of some elements that will serve us.”Some he sees as inevitable; others as hypothetical.

Here’s what his future, profitable, newspaper looks like:

  • Newspapers have to get out of the manufacturing and distribution business. 50% of costs are related to printing and trucking the paper. “There was a time when that was an asset. It was a barrier to entry. That is over.”
  • Reduce the physical size of the paper. “This absolutely will happen. The big fat broadsheet is going away.” The format he favors is the European Berliner format. Sectionalized. Reader friendly. The number of pages is going to go down. “Leave the content that inflated the paper by the wayside and keep the stuff that is important.”
  • The frequency of publication will be reduced to 3 or 4 days. Most ad revenue comes on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. “Hang on to that.”
  • Restructure the newsroom. Half of the journalists are involved in the “processing” of news – copy editing, writing captions, laying out pages – as opposed to the generation of journalism. Concentrate on journalism that matters. And, “focus on good writing. Tales well told.”

Listen up. The question isn’t where is journalism going. It’s how to get there from here.

[I’ll talk about television news some other day.]

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