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Do newspapers 'deserve' to die? Not so fast

Andy Ihnatko | June 11, 2013
Though I write stories about technology for the Chicago Sun-Times, I have no inside information about the thinking behind the Sun-Times' decision to cut its photography staff. What I have to say about this move is only informed by my observations about the modern realities of print publishing, and could apply to any great city paper with a long and proud history.

The community can get information from a source halfway around the world as easily as they can get it from a newspaper based right in the city. Apps and services can combine content from a dozen different sources and make them as easy to read in aggregate as any single, carefully-managed publication.

News that's a day old is Old News. Stories that took months of work, a dozen skilled journalists and editors to prepare, and tens of thousands of dollars to develop are of value only until some lone gunman cribs the original research for a blog post that took him about twenty minutes to throw together. And because his blog has better linkjuice than the newspaper's site, his post becomes the canonical source for most web traffic and he gains most of the ad and click revenue... not the paper.

Meanwhile, readers have been trained to think that anything on the Web should be free, so they actively rebel against paywalls. They also think ads are obnoxious, so they block them. They're willing to pay for downloaded content (the Kindle Store and iTunes Store trained them well), but daily news isn't in any way suited for that kind of delivery system; even News Corp's attempt at a daily downloadable newspaper collapsed within a year and took tens of millions of dollars with it.

Meanwhile, although the guy with the blog who's summarizing newspaper content only has to pay for bandwidth (maybe) and Iced Caffe Americanos (his office rent), the newspaper still has a full-time staff and facilities to pay for. Which is a pity, because the Web was also kind enough to drive nearly all of the newspaper industry's reliable streams of ad revenue elsewhere.

There's nothing unfair about any of these developments. This is just the world that newspapers find themselves in.

One benefit of modern publishing is that a publication receives phenomenally good information about its audience and what's driving them to the newspaper and its site. A city newspaper examines this data and then re-examines the workings of its 150-year-old news publishing machine. The machine was fantastic at manufacturing what readers wanted from 1850 to 1999. But it now needs to be retooled to manufacture what readers want in 2013.

The Sun-Times' photography staff numbered 28, according to reports. That's 28 full-time salaries and benefits packages. How many successful news sites have 28 full-time paid staffers, total? Not as many as you'd think; this is the benefit of building a brand-new machine from the ground up.

If the Sun-Times believes that readers aren't coming to the paper or returning to the Sun-Times' sites for the photography--if they really believe that--then they can't continue to keep that department staffed at their old-school levels.


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