Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Newspapers and the "unique content" problem

Newspapers are in trouble. This we all know. Today, Kos, in his latest post on the topic, looked at how many links to newspapers Daily Kos had over the course of a week. Maureen Dowd interviewed Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. She's a little nervous about her job.

One problem newspapers face is that they used to (emphasis on the past tense) have a semi-monopoly on news in their geographic area just by virtue of their format. Megan McArdle once pointed out (I think it was Megan) that the NY Times used to know at least two things about their customers. 1, they lived in the NY area. 2, they could afford a daily newspaper. Now the Times reader could be in Bangkok.

Newspapers used to have a huge advantage because they were the only source of news in a particular geographic area that was available almost whenever you wanted it. If you wanted to know if your team won last night, you could listen to the radio, watch TV, talk to someone else, or read the newspaper. Of those sources, newspapers are the only one that is available at any time after you picked it up. Radio and TV broadcast news at a specific time. If you missed any of that day's broadcasts, you were out of luck.

Newspapers also provided a great deal of content for a very cheap price. A newspaper has a lot of content, particularly compared to a radio or TV broadcast. And that content was not available anywhere else. Providing it gave newspapers a sort of monopoly. The only way to avoid that monopolization was for there to be multiple newspapers in a given city.

My grandfather, a small-town lawyer in the Midwest in the 1950's, used to subscribe to the Sunday NY Times. It would arrive on Thursday (even though NY was less than 1,000 miles away) because it took that long for the mail to deliver it. But he still read it, presumably because there was content in there that he couldn't get from any other source (I never talked to him about it, I heard this from my mother).

What newspapers have to do is figure out a way to provide unique content. I subscribe to the LA Times and the Financial Times. The LA Times is convenient (I can read it on the bus into work), but there isn't a lot of unique content. I like some of their columnists, particularly Meghan Daum, but I rarely read the articles on the front page, because I usually already know the story. The LA Times has done a fair amount of innovating in the last few years, but there is still much to do.

But the FT has a nice amount of unique content during the week. At least it's unique for me, because I don't subscribe to another business periodical, like the Wall Street Journal. And it's got global news, which I like.

Where the FT really shines is on the weekend (again, particularly for me), and most newspapers could learn some things about unique content from the FT Weekend. They have columnists that I can't read anywhere else, but who I read religiously. I don't have any particular interest in real estate in London, but I read Secret Agent religiously. I have learned a fair amount about wine from Jancis Robinson. On the back page is Fast Lane, by Tyler Brule, the ultimate jetsetter, and Slow Lane, by Harry Eyres, one of the few people alive who can write about Madonna and Nietzsche at the same time.

The NY Times, of course, has a fair amount of unique content, starting with its columnists. The LA Times has some unique content, like Dan Neil's car column, which is a great read. But it needs better unique content. Which, if you think about it, really should not be a problem. LA is one of the largest metropolitan areas on the planet. There are 88 cities in Los Angeles County. There are multiple mountain ranges in this county. We have a National Forest that has 650,000 acres. This is the world headquarters of the entertainment industry. There are something like 130 institutions of higher education just in LA County. There's no lack of material. Plus, there are several thousand writers who are all on a constant lookout for work.

So here's a new buzzword that will hopefully enter the zeitgest: "unique content." It's not hard to understand. Once upon a time, all newspapers provided it, just by virtue of being what they were. That is no longer the case.

Oh, and that unique content has to be in interesting formats, it can't just be text. The LA Times is doing more interesting things with photo essays, but I still don't think they're doing enough with video, particularly since some of the best cinematographers in the world (and many aspiring camerapeople) live and work here.

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