As newspaper companies confront a challenging future, they are
increasingly viewing their trademark print product as the engine
driving a diverse “portfolio” that embraces other
“platforms” such as Web sites and niche publications. Is
this a strategy for survival?

By Rachel Smolkin
Rachel Smolkin ( is AJR’s managing editor.     

years, newspapers have treated innovation like a trip to the dentist
— a torture to be endured, not encouraged. True, newspapers
finally got around to adding color. They shrank stories, hoping that
pithier, flashier fare would help attract young people who don’t like
to read. They spruced up the front page by sprinkling uplifting,
maudlin or otherwise titillating features amid the news. But bold new
thinking about the newspaper and a world of opportunities beyond it?
Please. Tell the dentist to add a veneer and leave the rotting core

Now that’s all changing, of necessity. Circulation
is falling; newsprint costs are rising; retail, auto and movie
advertising is slumping; classified advertising is available free on
craigslist and other online venues. Wall Street’s dissatisfaction with
newspapers boiled over in November, when money manager and Knight
Ridder shareholder Bruce S. Sherman forced the company to put itself up
for sale.

“You look at the choices that face journalists
today,” says Howard Weaver, vice president for news at McClatchy, the
Sacramento-based newspaper chain that’s buying Knight Ridder. “You can
give up, you can hunker down and bleed, or you can fight back. Well, I
want to fight back.”

At McClatchy and other major newspaper companies,
that battle is taking shape as a willingness to experiment with form.
An emerging weltanschauung sees newspapers as the engine driving a
myriad of products — from Web sites to free commuter tabloids to
Spanish-language publications — that can lure additional audience
(those folks we used to call readers) and reinvigorate listless

Such thinking is evolutionary. There has been no
mantra is gaining popularity industry-wide, propelled by a conviction
that a myopic view of newspapers simply won’t work in a fast-changing

Newspapers have not exactly been leaders in this
tech-driven landscape. In the late 1990s, they were tentatively dipping
their toes into the chilly rapids of cyberspace (see “,” June 1999);
years later, they still can’t quite figure out what to do with the Web
or how to make money off the thing. But, finally, newspapers are
starting to see the Internet as central to their future. In 2005,
newspaper Internet advertising topped $2 billion for the first time, a
31 percent increase over 2004, according to the Newspaper Association
of America. Unique visitors to newspaper Web sites jumped 21 percent
from January 2005 to December 2005.

“I think we were slow to catch on,” says Jay
Smith, president of Cox Newspapers, a chain of 17 daily and 25
non-daily newspapers. In Atlanta, where Cox is headquartered, its
portfolio includes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; an array of Web
sites (among them,, and;
two Spanish-language weeklies; and, as of May, Skirt! a free monthly
magazine targeted at women. “I think it’s perfectly natural to protect
what you have, to think what you have is the only thing that people
want,” Smith says. “You look back to the year 2000, and I don’t know
that newspapers ever had a better year financially. Those are the times
that can lull you into a sense of complacency. What we’ve discovered a
full five, six years later is that that world doesn’t exist anymore.”

Smith is the immediate past chairman of the NAA, which describes the emerging philosophy in earnest language in “The Source: Newspapers by the Numbers”,
a thumbnail sketch of the changing $59 billion industry. Old-school
newspaper aficionados should bring along their decoders: instead of
stories and readers, we now have “content” and “audience”; newspapers
and their sister publications are “products” that together create a
“portfolio.” And news itself is passé: We’re in the information
business now.

“The key to the future of newspapers is the effort to build a broad portfolio of products around the core product, the traditional newspaper, and to connect with both general and targeted audiences ,” “The Source” declares with generous use of boldface. “Newspapers across the country have established their presence on the Web
and are aggressively developing additional online products. They are
launching niche publications and reaching out to new audiences,
particularly minorities. It’s all part of a critical transformation : from newspaper companies to information companies.”

Although “convergence” across newspapers, TV and
radio has been a cherished industry buzzword for years, the portfolio
approach focuses primarily on the Internet and print rather than on
traditional radio and television (one exception is the Washington Post,
which launched programming on a local radio station in March). Federal
Communications Commission rules bar newspapers from owning broadcast
stations in the same market (some arrangements are grandfathered in),
and even if they could, TV and radio face the same competitive
pressures and declining audiences that newspapers do. Instead, many
newspapers are enthusiastically adding new audio and video options to
their Web sites, from newscasts to stories to commentary.

Last September, the American Press Institute
launched a yearlong initiative dubbed Newspaper Next aimed at offering
newspaper leaders some guidance in this brave new world. The Newspaper
Next team is working with Innosight LLC, a consulting group run by
Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and an
expert on how established industries get overtaken by “disruptive

Stephen Gray, managing director of Newspaper Next,
says the newspaper industry is exhibiting classic signs of an industry
shaken by seismic changes, often competition from new technologies.
“The newspaper industry, like others that have experienced this
problem, needs to learn some quite counterintuitive ways of
responding,” he says. “One of the things we need to be clear about in
our project is the focus of Newspaper Next is how to create innovation
outside of our core product. We have as an industry really little
record of innovation.”

Gray agrees that newspaper leaders are shifting
their approach, and he believes the pace of change is quickening.
“There’s definitely an increased tempo,” he says. “I think the Knight
Ridder tragedy, if you can use that word, is one of the things that
accelerated it. People looked at it and said, ‘If it can happen to
Knight Ridder, I better get moving.’ Knight Ridder itself had a number
of interesting things going on, but it takes time to get these new
things moving to the point that they’re generating significant

And as Bruce Sherman demonstrated so chillingly (see “Sherman’s March,” February/March),
shareholders may not be willing to wait much longer while newspapers
find their footing. “Seeing that happen was just a real wake-up call
not only to publicly traded companies but even to privately held
companies,” Gray says. “I’d say broadly across the industry, my
impression is that people came away from it thinking, ‘We have to move
faster. The wolf is closer to our heels than we thought.'”

Ken Marlin is managing partner of Marlin &
Associates, a New York investment banking firm that specializes in
media and technology deals. He compares newspapers’ predicament to the
demise of the slide rule: “[O]ne of the fundamental mistakes that a lot
of slide rule manufacturers made was in thinking that people wanted
slide rules instead of calculations. The slide rule world got wiped out
virtually overnight by electronic calculators.” Marlin says his analogy
is imperfect, because newspapers are not in imminent danger of getting
wiped out; he expects them to be around 10 years from now. But the
“newspaper companies, like the slide rule manufacturers, have to either
adapt to the new economics or die.”

To adapt, newspapers are, yes, innovating.

At Studio 55, “host” Denise Spidle credits both
and the Naples Daily News of Florida during her perky, 15-minute
newscast. Such rigorous attribution is not only transparent journalism
but also effective marketing: Studio 55 is a video newscast, or “vodcast,” produced by E.W. Scripps’ Naples Daily News.

“Potentially we have greater reach with the
vodcast than any other product we’ve ever done,” says President and
Publisher John Fish. “The vodcast, from the advertisers’ standpoint, is
the best multimedia buy in our area.” Spidle’s newscast is posted on each weekday at 4 p.m. and updated at 6 p.m.; it also
airs on the local Comcast cable channel. Sponsors’ 30-second spots
appear in both formats. The 69,456-circulation Naples Daily News lists
sponsors in daily promotions of the vodcast in the paper, and an
assortment of specialty publications, including a Spanish-language
weekly and five magazines, promote the vodcast and its sponsors as

Studio 55 was born April 3 into a local broadcast
vacuum. Although Fort Myers, 30 miles to the north, boasts four TV
stations, none is based in Naples, the county seat of fast-growing and
affluent Collier County. Fish, who believes video will play an
important role in newspapers’ future, saw an opportunity. “I think that
the competitive environment that we all find ourselves in, combined
with the economic challenges that we all face, requires that we look at
our business in different ways than we have in the past,” he says.

During his year and a half as publisher, Fish has
tripled the Daily News’ new-media team to 30 people, including four
videographers who produce news and commercials, and has overseen the
creation of a broadcast studio in a building next door to the newsroom.
In October, the new-media team launched a podcast that listeners can
access on their computers or download onto their iPods each morning.
Like the vodcast, the podcast showcases the newspapers’ reporters and
their work. “I’ve told our staff my goal is to produce the very best
podcast and the very best vodcast of any paper in the country,” says
Fish, who expects revenue from the new-media ventures to quadruple from
the end of 2004 to this year. “Not only do we want to be the best
new-media operation in the country for any paper our size, we also want
to be the most profitable.”

Gannett, the nation’s highest-circulation
newspaper chain, has moved aggressively during the last six or seven
years to develop a portfolio of “niche content offerings,” which
totaled 1,006 in mid-April. These include Spanish-language weeklies,
coupon books, 10 weekly city magazines aimed at young people and “ZIP
code” magazines written for and about residents of specific ZIP codes.
Many of the non-daily publications rely heavily on calendar information
detailing local happenings.

“What the niche publications do is reach
hard-to-get-to audiences for us traditionally, so it provides a ready
vehicle for advertisers that in many cases we haven’t had before,” says
Sue Clark-Johnson, president of Gannett’s newspaper division. As one
example, she cites a weekly tab aimed at young women in Phoenix that
fills a void in coverage of Southwest fashion. It’s included as an
insert in the Arizona Republic in some areas and also is distributed at
outlets frequented by the targeted audience. The stories, produced by
the newspaper’s staff, are all local: The tab “does not have fur coats
and boots in the August issue,” Clark-Johnson notes. It includes ads
from local bead stores and boutiques that have never advertised in the
Arizona Republic.

Even the Associated Press, long known for its
meat-and-potatoes approach to news, is spicing up its menu to serve its
clients better in this changing world. “Wherever newspapers go, we want
to be in a position to provide them what they need,” says AP President
and CEO Tom Curley. He says performing well on breaking news remains
the AP’s top priority, but he’s trying to add more enterprise and
contextual coverage. “We want to have ownership of the story for longer
than the first few hours.”

So the AP offers blogs and podcasts. On March 1, it started the AP Online Video Network,
which now produces about 40 stories a day in video form (Microsoft
provides the ad support and the video player). For its debut, the video
network provided coverage of New Orleans cleaning up from its first
Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina. On April 26, story choices included
rising gas prices and White House political adviser Karl Rove
testifying before a grand jury for the fifth time. (To check out how
the AP videos are used, try or and look under “News Video”; they are also available on other newspaper and radio Web sites.)

Last fall, the AP also joined the stampede to lasso elusive young readers, launching asap
(pronounced a-s-a-p) to help entertain the under-35 crowd. In late
April, asap’s contributions included a story about adults racing
plastic tricycles down San Francisco’s “crookedest” street and a
first-person commentary from Angie Wagner, the AP’s Western regional
writer and a stressed-out, sleep-deprived mother of two.

Busy moms also are a focus at the Dallas Morning
News, a Belo paper that is fashioning an online, one-stop resource with
local “mom-tested” recommendations on all things parenting, from summer
camps to pediatricians to academic tutors. The early idea for the
Master Mom project is to create a rating system similar to the reader
feedback averages on The format is still taking shape.
Would it be best to segment subjects by neighborhood in a city as a
large as Dallas? Should activities be subdivided by gender and age?

“The idea was really driven from kind of extending
our in-depth local coverage to meet audience needs,” says Jiggs Foster,
the paper’s marketing director. Staff asked, “What’s a need that’s
unmet in the Dallas marketplace that we can fulfill?… What is the job
that moms need done that’s not currently being met by anybody else?”

API’s Newspaper Next is providing free consulting
for the Master Mom project, and these are exactly the kinds of
questions that Gray and his team want newspapers to pose. Why? Because
the slide rule analogy, while instructive, overlooks one of the
challenges newspapers face: Sometimes competitors aren’t all that
obvious. Just as the wolf tricked Little Red Riding Hood by donning her
grandmother’s cap and nightgown, so have threats at times seemed
innocuous, and certainly irrelevant, to the core business of

Take craigslist,
the community space for classifieds from housing to jobs to personals.
“That doesn’t even look to us like it has anything to do with
newspapers when it comes on the scene, and probably didn’t to Craig
Newmark, either,” Gray says. (Newmark, who started craigslist in 1995,
agrees. “I didn’t have a clue” about his site’s impact on the industry,
he says. “The effect we’ve had on news has been greatly exaggerated,
although,” he jokes, “it makes a better story that way.”)

Newmark “didn’t think of himself as being in the
newspaper industry,” Gray continues. “He looked at the market and said,
‘There are a bunch of people here with jobs they’d like to get done…
I’ll just make this and see what happens.’ In the early stages, any
newspaper person would have looked at it and said, ‘Well, that’s
interesting, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me.’ Pretty soon,
in some markets, you’re seeing 50,000 to 100,000 items advertised…
That thing that didn’t look initially like it had anything to do with
[newspapers] worked its way into our space.”

To help newspapers spot new opportunities in a
changing marketplace, Gray and the Innosight consultants suggest this
approach: “People are trying to get certain information jobs done in
their lives,” he says. “What are those jobs? What jobs are very
important to them and occur frequently, and they’re really frustrated
about the solutions available to them?” As the Morning News team
explores its mom-oriented venture, “they’re not even thinking about
whether [the moms] read a newspaper,” Gray adds. “It’s not really
relevant. They’re saying, ‘We think we can build a significant audience
that we know would be of interest to advertisers.'”

any of this work? Will the new print publications and Internet
initiatives help convince Wall Street that newspapers have a plan for
the future other than incessant cost-cutting?

“I do think that newspapers have a strong future,
and it lies in the fact that they will be or are the last mass medium
in each local market,” says Gary Pruitt, the chairman and CEO of
McClatchy, which is gambling $6.5 billion — $4.5 billion plus
another $2 billion in assumed debt — on newspapers’ future to buy
Knight Ridder. (McClatchy is selling 12 Knight Ridder papers, including
the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News.) “That’s a
good, strong position to be in because we’re holding onto our market
better than our local competition. Before, that used to be enough. But
it’s only the beginning now. It’s no longer sufficient just to have
that core daily newspaper; instead, we need to leverage off of it this
whole portfolio of products, including, and most importantly, the
leading local Internet site.”

In the short run, Pruitt, who outlined the
newspaper-as-engine strategy in a March 16 Wall Street Journal
commentary, thinks newspaper companies must do a better job of
explaining this strategy to investors. “The first thing we need to
communicate is that newspapers are strong and viable and have good
futures, because I think they are consistently underestimated,” he
says. “Secondarily, and without taking anything away from the first
point, also articulating that we are not just a newspaper, that in each
market we’re the leading local media company, the leading local
Internet company,” capable of delivering news continuously. In the long
term, he adds, “the proof will be in performance. We’re just going to
have to deliver.”

Of course, newspapers have been strong performers
for a long time — and that’s part of the problem, says Conrad
Fink, a professor of newspaper management and strategy at the
University of Georgia. In 2004, he says, profits of publicly owned
newspaper companies averaged about 20 percent, compared with an average
11 percent for Fortune 500 companies. “We’ve been hugely profitable in
the past, and Wall Street only knows one mantra: ‘More please, more,'”
says Fink, a former Associated Press vice president. He thinks
Sherman’s success at strong-arming Knight Ridder shows “we damn well
have got severe problems with investors who in my opinion are
completely unreasonable. I do not see that pressure lessening unless we
make some kind of change in investor psychology, which is, of course, a
hell of a challenge.”

And because newspapers are reacting to a difficult
economic climate, they don’t have the luxury of gently reeducating
sanguine investors; instead, they’re preoccupied with trying to keep
revenue and profits from sinking further. Edward Atorino, a media
analyst at the New York-based brokerage firm Benchmark Co., says
newspapers are trying to change their business plans “in the midst of a
very tough advertising environment.” Although ad revenue rose slightly
in 2005, it was up less than expected, he says, and 2006 is off to a
disappointing start. “I think they’re doing what they can do. It’s hard
to turn businesses around on a dime… The business literally fell out
of bed a couple years ago, and they reacted slowly to the Internet.”

When newspapers did react to the Web, most gave
news away free, turning the journalism business into a giant
philanthropy. “Should they have charged for that like Dow Jones did?
It’s too late now,” Atorino says. “They’re trying to play catch-up, and
that’s a tough game.”

They’re also trying to figure out exactly what
their mission is in this audience-driven, multiplatform era. Esther
Dyson, editor of Release 1.0, a technology newsletter at CNET Networks,
says newspaper companies need to be clear about what they’re trying to
accomplish, and they need to do it well. “Are you a media company,
tailoring content to reach an audience and sell ads? Or are you a
journalistic enterprise, focused on finding out and publicizing
important truths? If you don’t really know what you’re trying to do,
then you keep disappointing people who think they understand,” she

“The whole company doesn’t need to do the same
thing, but the parts need to understand” their role and have a business
model that supports it. So far, she says of newspaper companies’
attempts to capitalize on the Web, niche publications and other
potential moneymakers, “most of them are not crisp enough about it.”

What, for example, should papers do with their Web
sites? Post all the newspaper stories, toss in some breaking news and
spruce it up with a few blogs and podcasts? Try something innovative
and completely different from news as we know it, like the Master Mom
project? How should they persuade existing advertisers to come aboard
their Web sites, and attract new advertisers as well?

“From my perspective, newspapers ain’t doing too
bad on the Internet,” says Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, a
media research and consulting firm that tracks Internet advertising
revenues for local Web sites. He says papers have used the last 10
years to bring their print advertisers online, and the next 10 will be
critical to see if papers can expand that ad base and transform their
Internet sites into viable businesses in their own right.

Borrell says newspapers should start by relaxing a
little, and realize that readers still prefer the printed paper for
local news. “People don’t go to the Internet in huge droves for local
school board news or local crime news,” he says. “I think [newspapers]
should stop giving that away on the Internet.”

But he also believes newspapers need to give their
Web operations some independence. If newspaper companies hope to
survive, he says, they have to realize the Internet is a distinct
medium, and the newspaper needs a separate set of very strong managers
who can’t be distracted by what’s going on online. “They have it
married too much in their minds. The newspaper and online in their
minds are Siamese twins.”

Borrell suggests thinking of newspaper Web sites in part as a general store for local commerce, and recommends (run by the Boston Globe), (Raleigh’s News & Observer) and
(Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot) as fine examples of this approach. includes stories, but the information-packed site
doesn’t look like a newspaper. It features top-rated local restaurants,
daily polls (one in late April asked visitors if Hampton Roads’ economy
is too dependent on the military; another asked who should get the next
“American Idol” boot), a stock market update and a local marketplace
“DealSpotter” for shoppers, subdivided into categories such as
automotive, home and garden, and apparel and jewelry.

Investment banker Ken Marlin also warns against
simply hurling the print edition into cyberspace. “It’s not good enough
to take what you have in print form and put it up on the Web,” he says.
“You have to take advantage of what the new medium offers and what the
new medium allows you to do.” While a newspaper might list Italian
restaurants in a neighborhood, its Web site could allow readers to say,
“I’m standing on a corner. Tell me the inexpensive Italian restaurants
within half a mile or so and book a reservation.”

architects of the multiplatform portfolios must think globally, paying
attention to viable business models and detailed audience research and
direct-mail programs for advertisers. But at a Newspaper Next symposium
in Washington, D.C., in early February, the first day of a provocative
conference about the future of newspapers didn’t include a single word
about watchdog journalism or investigative reporting.

Protecting the unique work that newspapers do will
be critical to preserving their value. Doing so will not be easy. The
shifting business model is ushering in dramatic changes for print
journalists, making significant demands on their time, compelling new
skills and requiring a new way of thinking about their jobs.

At the Miami Herald in early April, Executive
Editor Tom Fiedler installed a sports-bar-size, flat-screen monitor
outside the newsroom that displays and continuously refreshes
The homepage is the first thing journalists see when they step off the
fifth-floor elevators; newspaper racks aren’t visible until they turn
left into the newsroom.

Fiedler followed up this bit of symbolism with an
April 12 staff memo laying bare the ramifications of the multiplatform
shift on the newsroom itself. “We are beyond being satisfied with
incremental change and giving polite head nods toward other media
platforms,” Fielder wrote in the memo, which was quickly posted and
debated on Jim Romenesko’s media blog.
“We are going to execute fundamental restructuring to support that
pledge. Every job in the newsroom — EVERY JOB — is going to
be redefined to include a web responsibility and, if appropriate,
radio. For news gatherers, this means posting everything we can as soon
as we can. It means using the web site to its fullest potential for
text, audio and video. We’ll come to appreciate that is
not an appendage of the newsroom; it’s a fundamental product of the

In an interview two days later, Fiedler said he
wants to structure the newsroom toward delivering news when journalists
have it, not toward delivering a morning newspaper. “We’re way too
comfortable thinking of ourselves as newspaper people,” he says. “We’ve
got to take a step back and shake ourselves loose of that.” He
envisions adding a continuous news desk to oversee stories for the Web
and designating a breaking news editor with the authority to dispatch
reporters to cover news live, much as TV news crews do. He expects the
newspaper itself will “take on a more historic feel: ‘For the record,
this is what’s happening.'”

What will all these new obligations mean for the
thorough, in-depth reporting that separates newspapers from their
competitors? Will reporters’ responsibilities to write for the Web mean
they simply don’t have time to make that extra call to the mayor, or
the police chief, or the local gadfly — time-consuming reporting
that adds nuance to stories and sometimes changes their direction
entirely? “That’s a challenge,” Fiedler says. “I’m determined to
overcome that challenge.”

In both his memo and in the interview, Fiedler
emphasized that he doesn’t want to “bleed the newspaper” to build up
the Web site. He says he’s looking into adding a few newsroom positions
and realizes the paper probably will need to drop some mundane
elements, such as stock tables. “The first concern that reporters have
is, ‘Are you in effect going to turn me into a wire service reporter?'”
Fiedler says. “One reporter asked, ‘Does this mean we’re going to have
[story] quotas?’ That’s not at all what I’m thinking, and I don’t
believe that’s necessary.”

also aims to steer clear of the If-It-Bleeds-It-Leads mentality so
prevalent in local TV news. “One of the things I want to avoid is the
cheapest and simplest kind of news that we could feed to the Web page
and call it continuous news,” such as covering “anything with yellow
police tape around it,” Fiedler says. “I really want us to do the kind
of journalism that distinguishes us.”

The Miami Herald is among the Knight Ridder papers
that McClatchy plans to keep, but when Fiedler issued his memo, he
couldn’t discuss newsroom changes with his new bosses because the sale
was pending. (The Justice Department has since changed its regulations
to allow such conversations, he says.) While the ownership change
introduced “a bit of an X factor for us here and for me,” Fiedler said
in the interview that he had “to believe that this is a direction that
they would want us to move in also.”

He’s right, if Gary Pruitt’s comments are any
indication. Pruitt says the multiplatform model demands more from print
journalists because it puts them back in the business of breaking news.
“Everything becomes harder for everybody,” Pruitt says. He thinks the
best solution is a continuous news desk in the newsroom that focuses on
breaking news. “But then of course there are others doing in-depth,
investigative pieces,” he says. “This is not mutually exclusive. We’re
going to have to do all of it. We can’t abandon one for the other,
because that will weaken the core newspaper.”

McClatchy’s 125,228-circulation News Tribune in
Tacoma, Washington, has established a continuous news desk that is
staffed beginning at 6 a.m. and focuses on weather and traffic for
early drive-time reports in addition to breaking news. The paper’s Web
site (
offers a potpourri of blogs on subjects including sports, real estate,
food and fly-fishing, and will soon add a blog on military affairs and
a guide to local online sites. Reporters and photographers also use
podcasts to provide behind-the-scene glimpses into their newsgathering.

At the Washington Post, journalists routinely feed
with stories, online chats and blogs. They appear on TV news shows and
on Washington Post Radio, an AM-FM station launched March 30 that’s
programmed mainly by the Post and owned by Bonneville International
Corp. “The jobs are becoming more versatile,” Post Publisher and CEO Bo
Jones says of his journalists. (The paper’s Guild chapter, unhappy that
some reporters aren’t getting paid for the increased workload, in April
filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.) Jones,
Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Managing Editor Philip Bennett
are looking at how changes to the newsroom’s organizational structure
could better serve the Web as well as the paper. “You don’t necessarily
have to organize all your newsroom staff along sections anymore,” says
Jones, who is also chairman of the NAA. “The sections that run off the
presses aren’t always relevant to the Web.”

One sure sign that we’re in a very different
world: Downie, who joined the Post as a summer intern in 1964 and
personifies the traditional newspaperman, recently told his staff that
the Post needs to become “platform-agnostic.” (Washington City Paper
reported this comment and added, “When your 63-year-old editor starts
sounding like Esther Dyson, you know your newsroom is changing.”)
Downie talks enthusiastically about the Post’s continuous news desk and
about working with the Post Co.’s Spanish-language paper, El Tiempo
Latino, to translate more Post stories into Spanish. A few Post
reporters have started using video cameras to capture scenes for Downie sees that practice expanding “entirely on a
voluntary basis” in the future.

The Post, like the rest of the industry, has not
been immune to cutbacks. On March 10, the company announced that it
would eliminate about 80 full-time newsroom positions over the next
year — about 9 percent of its news staff — through
attrition and by offering early retirement. Asked if a willingness to
serve the Post’s various platforms helps preserve newsroom slots that
might otherwise be lost as circulation declines, Downie says, “In a
general sense that might be the case, but not directly; there’s no
direct quid pro quo.” But he also says, “Certainly the fact that we are
producing content now for many different platforms means that dollars
that are spent in the newsroom” go further.

Philip Meyer, the Knight Chair in Journalism at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of “The
Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age,” is
dismayed that newspapers are increasing workloads instead of increasing
staff and ignoring what he sees as an opportunity to invest in their
futures. “There’s a lot more activity on the Internet sites. I’m not
sure that’s gotten to the point of creating new content, or new
resources are being thrown into it,” he says. Instead, “editors and
reporters are supposed to serve the Internet during their coffee

the multiplatform approach inevitably lead us to abandon printed
newspapers? In Meyer’s view, it is an excellent transitional model
— newspaper readers, like newspaper journalists, hate rapid
change — but not an end point. He says the Internet offers a
chance to trade the high costs of ink on paper for a free distribution

“They should start phasing out of it,” Meyer, a
newspaper veteran, says of the traditional print version. “I think the
newspaper will survive in some form, possibly less than daily. I think
people will still want a print product to carry around with them, but
it might be a weekend product.” Maybe, Meyer suggests, readers could
pick up newspapers of the future at the train station on their way to
work, eliminating home-delivery costs.

“But the key to it is a stronger journalistic
product…and this is what the industry is missing right now,” Meyer
says. “Instead, they’re doing the opposite, trying to save their way to
prosperity by cutting back on the product. If they don’t take advantage
of this opportunity, somebody else is going to do it for them.”

A surprisingly similar take on newspapers’ future
comes from a man with no journalism background but a strong sense of
the Internet’s possibilities. “I would be doing whatever I could to
make the online version of the site increasingly compelling; I would be
engaging the community more; I would be investigating delivery of news
to mobile devices, particularly cell phones, and paying a lot of
attention to, let’s call them electronic ink technologies, including
the scrollable displays from companies like Philips and HP,” says
craigslist’s Craig Newmark. “I love the use of paper, but it’s
expensive to buy, it’s expensive to print, and it’s expensive to

Newmark reads the print version of the San
Francisco Chronicle every day, and he’s also started reading the New
York Times more frequently “in part to make Arthur happy” (that would
be Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.). He’s a fan of bloggers and
citizen journalism, but he also describes professional journalism as
“very strong. It involves serious editing, fact-checking, that kind of
thing, and I think that will be the strength that newspapers bring to
their electronic media. I do see video and the written word all
converging, delivered electronically, with paper more of an occasional
luxury item,” Newmark says, cheerfully advising anybody listening to
take his views with a large grain of salt.

But McClatchy’s Pruitt doesn’t foresee
old-fashioned newspapers disappearing anytime soon. “It is likely that
circulation will decline slowly over time, as more audiences become
comfortable with the Internet, but the newspaper will remain viable as
print on paper for as far out as we can project at McClatchy,” he says.
“Half the people in the United States still read a daily newspaper, and
that number is not declining quickly.”

As Pruitt sees it, the multiplatform approach is a
way to protect newspapers, not bury them. “Small niche products or
direct-mail programs may seem nitty-gritty or competing at the low end,
but it’s that kind of business activity that will sustain the high-end
journalism in the core,” he says. “I think if you don’t create this
portfolio of products, you’re probably destined to lose share and be a
smaller economic entity, which long-term will hurt the potential of
what the newspaper and the journalism can be. Can it be a distraction?
Of course, if you let it be. But it can also be the engine that can
drive success.”

Cox’s Jay Smith sees this tumultuous period of
transformation as an opportunity for a newspaper renaissance. “Nothing
can motivate you like tough times, but we’ve also gotten beyond some of
our rigid thinking about what we do and how we must do it,” he says. “I
don’t think I’ve ever seen a more open and receptive time in newspapers
in the last 40 years.”

And Gray, of Newspaper Next, puts the case for
innovation this way: “If someone is not reading a newspaper or not
reading a Web site, how are you fulfilling your civic mission? You’ve
got to have some kind of connection with people in order to fulfill
your civic mission. It’s up to you to figure out the right mix. I say
let’s start the products, let’s build the audiences, let’s attract the
advertisers, and let’s remember who we are.”

And who, exactly, are we? In an era when even Len
Downie touts platform agnosticism, old newspaper mores are clearly
disappearing. What will replace them? How will we guard newspapers’
spirit: their gift for knitting together disparate threads of a
community rather than pandering to divergent demographics, ages and
interests; their commitment to watchdog journalism and to holding the
powerful accountable; their lofty standards of dogged fact-finding and
tireless digging?

There’s a good reason journalists are so wary of
innovation. Daring new experiments intended to save newspapers must not
destroy their souls. They must not turn print journalists into spinning
tops, whirling from podcasts to vodcasts to radio appearances to online
chats to blogging, then clutching their video cameras as they rush to
an assignment and, if they get a free second, trying to squeeze in a
little reporting.

It’s worth noting — and a hopeful sign
— that the Pulitzer Prizes this year honored work that shows
newspapers at their finest and most traditional: the Washington Post’s
Dana Priest for exposing the CIA’s network of secret prisons abroad;
the New York Times’ James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for revealing the
National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping; Copley News
Service and the company’s San Diego Union-Tribune for toppling a
corrupt congressman; and the staffs at New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and
Gulfport, Mississippi’s Sun Herald for valiant reporting on Hurricane
Katrina and its aftermath, when their devastated communities needed
them most.

If newspapers abandon the relentless reporting
that makes them special, then their future won’t be worth protecting,
in any form.