TOC Mene, Tekel, Peres. Newspapers found wanting Your Turn

What can be sadder than waking up on New Year's Day to find the writing on the wall (1). In the case at hand, the demise of the newspaper industry, one does not need to be a prophet to interpret the sentence. Every journalist and cartoonist, or so it seems, has joined into some collective elegy. What makes this chorus poignant is the complex harmony between the voices who lament the departed readers and those who mourn the ebb of advertising. Sure it is on the printed page that David Carr (*) and Darryl Cagle (**) convey to me how the young could not care less and Aline van Duyn (***) how revenues are drying up. But how could I fully savor the irony since my very using of newspapers reveals me as a man of the past?

The past of course is what allows one to take the long view. This is not the first time a venerable industry encounters a cruel fate and moving elegies are penned on its passing. Among the best, I rank Master Cornille's secret (2), a tale from Alphonse Daudet's "Letters from my Mill" (3). It is about an old miller whose windmill viability is crushed by competition from steam mills like wheat grains ground into flour dust. Small comfort it is to know that a century and a half later, wind power is back in fashion (4).

One may very well rebel against fate and ask if the death of newspapers is so inevitable. Naive observers would say they are still very much alive today. So much so that some businessmen whose experience cannot be denied are rumored to be ready to buy into the industry. Newspapers must evolve, one will say, but as they weathered the advent of radio and television, so they can adapt to the Internet.

This is the age old debate between Lamarck and Darwin. Both took on the riddle of evolution. Darwin based its answer on natural selection, which can magnify small, random variations into major, stable characteristics if they prove beneficial to survival and reproduction. Lamarck's earlier answer posited that such changes did not happen by chance during reproduction but by training during survival. Since no one has yet documented an organism which can modify its DNA and then pass it on to its offspring, Lamarck (5) ranks a distant second to Darwin in popular lore.

Newspaper owners ought to root for Lamarck. Give them enough time and the will to survive will make them evolve as they must. By trade, strategy consultants are Lamarckians. Given enough money, they will teach newspapers how to do it. Maître Cornille they say was in the flour business, a growth industry. He had the clients. He only needed to update his production technology. The issue of course is the longer a company has lived with a hitherto beneficial characteristic, the more its very business model has become dependent on it. And the larger the evolutionary step required, the less likely it becomes. Call it Lamarck's curse. Streetwise readers may mutter something about old dogs.

Having spent a number of years as a consultant, I am in favor of Lamarck. Survival is not a right, but a fight and long odds once acknowledged can be bracing. For starter I recommend this quote from Peter Aman, a partner at Bain & Company, as amplified by Aline van Duyn. "Newspapers need to monetise the internet through different business models [other than advertising]. These might include taking a cut from transactions that take place on the site (such as airline ticket sales) or charging a fee for consumer referrals (to a qualified plumber, say)."

What Peter Aman is telling newspaper owners boils down to one simple fact. While their industry rests on monetising the audience created by their content, advertising is no longer a sustainable way to do so. This is not to say that advertising itself is a dying business. Rather its ruddy good health now benefits Google, Yahoo and so called social networks, these Darwinist interlopers, plus the legion of independent bloggers who can prosper on an AdSense pittance and on whom natural selection is currently hard at work. One can always adopt Rupert Murdoch's strategy and buy an interloper. Cross-species adoption however is not evolution. Good strategy perhaps, a roaring success in the case of the Roman she-wolf, but nothing to do with Darwin or Lamarck.

So what are the newspaper owners to do? Most will lose the will to live and sell the paper to some wealthy boy looking for a toy, the greater fool according to David Carr, or at least maintain profitability to the last day by carefully counting every mina, shekel and parsu.

But maybe a few will follow Lamarck and heeds the insight that advertising is not the only way to monetise an audience. For those hardy souls, I have some advice of my own. If advertising is not the priority, all temptations to abuse one's readers' privacy (see 7/25/06 fillip) disappear and one can safely adopt technologies such as ePrio's to implement new sales channels (6/20/06 and 11/21/06 fillips) and referral services (12/05/06 fillip), as suggested above. I stand to benefit from my recommendation, I must admit. But reading a paper is such that nobody can spy on your every eye motion. Newspapers carry confidentiality in their genes. Were they to express it on the Internet, they would gain a strategic habitat. For Internet advertisers are simply bound to evolve ever deeper privacy violations (12/12/06 fillip).

I have confessed to being a man of the past. This does not preclude being a man of the future also. Recall my comparison between pollution and privacy invasion (see 5/09/06 fillip). As Internet evolves at a dizzying pace, I would be surprised if confidentiality takes as long to become established as ecology did to vindicate Maître Cornille.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....The Lonely Newspaper Reader, by David Carr (New York Times) - January 1, 2007
  • (**) .. The Death of Newspapers, a Daryl Cagle's cartoon - January 4, 2007
  • (***) Digital deficit: how media groups are grappling with a drift of revenue to the web, by Aline van Duyn (Financial Times) - January 2, 2007
  • (1) The writing on the wall from the Book of Daniel, chapter 5
  • (2) I have not been able to spot an online translation of Le secret de Maître Cornille. Maybe learning French is not such a bad investment after all.
  • (3) see Letters from my Mill by Alphonse Daudet, 1866
  • (4) Martha's Vineyard's Gazette remembered Maître Cornille when discussing Edgartown Windmill, as compiled by Eulalie Regan
  • (5) for more information, consult wikipedia on Lamarck
January 2007
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