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Phil Meyer Updates Thoughts on Vanishing Newspapers

At I have been monitoring what Philip Meyer has been saying about the future of newspapers for quite sometime and took his book “The Vanishing Newspaper” very seriously, very early. It even inspired our Wake Up Call conference in 2005. Now he is back with more excellent advice in an article in the American Journalism Review. He now says for newspapers to survive they must trim their audiences and produce high quality journalism that will inform thought leaders.

Here are some excerpts from his must read article:

When writing “The Vanishing Newspaper,” I underestimated the velocity of the Internet effect. It is now clear that it is as disruptive to today’s newspapers as Gutenberg’s invention of movable type was to the town criers, the journalists of the 15th century.

He adds:

The newspapers that survive will probably do so with some kind of hybrid content: analysis, interpretation and investigative reporting in a print product that appears less than daily, combined with constant updating and reader interaction on the Web.

But the time for launching this strategy is growing short if it has not already passed. The most powerful feature of the Internet is that it encourages low-cost innovation, and anyone can play….

…it is possible to envision a scenario in which newspapers trim down to a specialized product and survive by serving a narrow market well. They are already trimming down. But what are they trimming down to? Have they thought about what’s left after all the shrinkage?

In early 2007, I was asking the question of “What will happen when only the journalism is left?” I have modified it to ask “What will journalism be like when only the journalism is left?” But at one point, Geneva Overholser told me I had it wrong, the quality journalism, she said, would be the first thing to go.

Here is what Meyer says:

I still believe that a newspaper’s most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.

By news, I don’t mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don’t need new information so much as help in processing what’s already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.

The raw material for this processing is evidence-based journalism, something that bloggers are not good at originating.

Not all readers demand such quality, but the educated, opinion-leading, news-junkie core of the audience always will. They will insist on it as a defense against “persuasive communication,” the euphemism for advertising, public relations and spin that exploits the confusion of information overload. Readers need and want to be equipped with truth-based defenses.

Here Meyer really gets to the point, and totally impresses me:

Won’t democracy be endangered if the newspaper audience shrinks down to this hard core? Not at all. As far back as 1940, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld discovered that voters get their information from one another as much as from direct consumption of the media. He called this the “two-step flow” from opinion leaders to the general public. The Internet is enhancing that two-step flow, converting it to a many-step flow. The problem is not distributing the information. The problem is maintaining a strong and trusted agency to originate it. Newspapers have that position of trust in the minds of the public.

Finally he writes to succeed newspapers’ endgame must concentrate:

… on retaining newspapers’ core of trust and responsibility. The mass audience is drifting away, and resources should be focused on the leadership audience. If existing newspapers don’t do it, new competitors will enter their markets and do it for them.

It is part of an argument I have been making for some time. The news media must not dumb down, they must smarten up.

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