I'm on the road. On May 3, I gave a talk at Wright State University. I showed my political cartoons, excerpts from graphic novels past and future, and something new I've been working on the last couple of years: two-minute-long animations for the Web.
But no one wanted to talk about comics. The first audience question was: "How can we save newspapers?"
That happens a lot nowadays. Never mind cartoons; people want to save the papers the cartoons run in (and, increasingly, used to run in). The Q&A session following my April 28 appearance at Philadelphia's Pen and Pencil Club was dominated by the same "are papers doomed?" question. The thing is, the Pen and Pencil is the oldest press club in America. The audience included reporters and editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. I should have been asking them about the future of media. Then again, their minds were preoccupied. Both papers had just been sold to a new owner no one knew much about.
This newspapers-in-trouble thing is weird. Tens of millions of Americans still want them enough to pay for them. Yet circulation and revenues keep plunging. Normally, when demand exists for a product, it is possible to sell it at a profit. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that poor management is at least partly to blame for the industry's problems.
I tell my audiences: If I knew the answer to saving the newspaper business, I wouldn't be talking to them. I'd be hanging out with Rupert and the other press barons, billing them millions for my sage advice. I certainly wouldn't be watching my income plunge as my workload expands.
I don't have answers. But I do have thoughts.
Here they are:
Embrace The New Yorker Theory.
I hate The New Yorker. I hate its tone, I hate its attitude, I even hate its font. I can't stand the cartoons. But I read the magazine anyway. Not because I'm a masochist. Because I live in New York, I'm a media person, and if I don't read The New Yorker, I'll look stupid at parties. When you're competing for reader dollars against millions of websites and thousands of publications, you need to become like The New Yorker: so essential that people will buy your product, not because they like it, but because they have to.
Assume smart readers. Editors think readers are dumb. They say so in private. And they make it clear by what they're doing to newspapers: shorter stories, less coverage of international news, obsessive celebrity gossip, bland opinion pages, boring features. But editors are wrong. Anyone who seeks out and pays for a newspaper in 2010 is curious and intelligent by definition. Newspaper buyers are looking for challenging, deep analysis, not newsbytes that mimic the Internet (which they get for free anyway). Unfortunately, they're not finding it. Which brings us to...
More analysis, less news. The evening newspaper and network TV nightly news are dinosaurs. Whether you read it online, on your iPhone, or heard it on the radio or from a coworker, by the time you get home from work you already know about the coup in Kyrgyzstan and who won the game. What you need now is someone to tell what it all means. Who is the new Kyrgyz president? How will the coup affect the war on terror? How do the playoffs look now?
With one exception, newspapers should stop trying to break news. They shouldn't even summarize it. Papers can't compete with online news sites. They should publish a daily version of what Time or Newsweek could be if they weren't lame: lengthy analyses, complete with colorful charts and graphs, along with opinions all across the political spectrum.
In a way, this is the hardest advice for papers to follow. They're set up to break stories and to confirm other outlets' stories. For a forward-looking paper, out-of-work magazine feature writers might be a better fit than retooling someone who has been working the city hall beat.
The exception? Investigative journalism. Few online sites have the money or time to invest in unmasking the mayor as the corrupt bastard we all know he is. When written well, an exposé can be as riveting as a Robert Ludlum novel.
Stop sucking. Newspaper circulation began falling decades before anyone heard of HTML. The reason is simple: they got boring. Compare today's paper with an issue from the 1940s, when the industry was at the top of its game. The differences are striking: lively prose, nice mix of high (in-depth analysis) and low (tons of comics and columns). Indian newspapers, still growing as the Web spreads in that country, even deploy cartoonists to illustrate news, thus jazzing up what would otherwise be merely another car crash story. Internet news and opinion sites have learned that people prefer brash, edgy and opinionated to bland and "safe." (Actually, "safe" is dangerous. It's a recipe for bankruptcy.)
Stop giving it away. It ought to go without saying that giving away content for free online was an obviously stupid idea when newspapers started it a decade ago. Inexplicably, they're still at it. Stop it, idiots!
Charge more. As Peter Osnos writes in The Atlantic, the English-language paper Americans buy overseas offers a model for the future: when advertising dries up, charge readers more. "There is relatively little advertising in the [International Herald-Tribune], even less of course than before the crash. But there has never been all that much advertising. The key to revenue is a high cover price," Osnos says. "In Italy, the daily costs ?2.50 (about $3.40), and prices elsewhere are comparable." Sound like a lot? Cigarettes are ten bucks a pack in Manhattan. "A newspaper specifically shaped for an audience of 'elite' readers," as Osnos describes the IHT, should be able to charge four bucks. "It is eighteen pages of quality news and analysis, with extensive business coverage and enough cultural and sports news to be comprehensive rather than overwhelming."
Sit tight. The buzzword de l'année is "curate." Americans, especially those older ones who spend long hours at work and with family, will become increasingly disillusioned with the spin and disinformation that passes for news online and on a thousand channels. Soon they will yearn for someone to figure out what's important, package it into a digestible format, and deliver it to them -- i.e., to "curate" the news. And they'll pay.
Oh, how they'll pay.
Of course, it might take 10 or 20 years for people to decide that they'd rather have their news spoon-fed to them than to sift through crap online. But what else do newspaper publishers and editors have to do?
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