Newspapers’ troubles are their own fault?

There’s been so so much written about the decline of the newspaper industry over the last five years, and so much of it takes the view that the decline was inevitable in the face of the internet. Occasionally this is delivered with the unconvincing caveat that newspapers could have survived if they’d never put their content online for free. Yet while the newspaper’s inability, unwillingness, and slowness to adapt gets traction in a healthy number of these pieces, rarely does it get comprehensive review. Bill Wyman’s recent essay, Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing (via), not only chronicles these failures, but argues — persuasively — that the newspapers’ decline is their own damned fault.

He begins with a long introduction that spills over into reason #1 (the 5-point list structure seems grafted on to make the longish piece internet-friendly), but really gets cooking in #2:

The paradigmatic American newspaper, once its competition had been eliminated, settled down into a comfortable monopoly position in most cities; sometimes there was another paper around, but in most places one newspaper stood dominant and took home most of the ads, not to mention the money.

These monopoly positions created a dynamic by which the only thing a paper could do wrong was to offend or, God forbid, lose a reader.

The newspapers old model was based on producing MOR fluff. Everybody had a newspaper subscription, and if you wanted to advertise to them you had to buy newspaper ads. But Wyman argues that newspapers had at least a decade of warning of the sea change, and rather than using their profits to get ready, they turned them into increased profit margins. They could have been channeling their considerable resources into creating content with bite and immediacy (which is what you need to compete on the internet), and they could have embraced new technologies that emerged. Wyman blames the leadership, and he blames reporters themselves, for not standing up and arguing for these changes.

In #5 comes a pretty comprehensive critique of newspaper websites. I found this particularly delicious because it touches on a couple of points I’ve made over the years.

Newspaper sites, by and large, are designed as if the paper still had a monopoly on news in its area—and that it didn’t have to work hard to make the sites work sensibly for readers. There is often information available, but you have to work to find it, and the sites don’t seem to care whether you find it or not, and don’t present the information you want in an easy or engaging way. The criticism of Google News you hear from publishers makes me laugh. The top 20 daily newspaper companies in the country could have built a similar site with a paltry investment 15 years ago.

These pieces obligatorily end with a list of ways the problems could be fixed, and Wyman obliges with a great one. Prefaced with a hearty “They don’t have the gumption to change, and it’s probably too late anyway, but here’s what I’d try,” it’s actually a really great list. But no cheating — read the whole thing.