Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The new news map

Go to Google News. Go ahead, do it now. I'll wait. Look at the lead story. As I write this, it's about McCain beating Romney in Florida. After a few links to the usual suspects (the Times, CNN, USA Today), it offers to show me "all 3,959 news articles" related to McCain's Florida victory. That story will also be the A1 story in almost every paper in the country tomorrow, and a majority of them will be written by a staffer, not the AP (though many will be wire service stories rewritten at least in part by that staffer).

Two decades ago, even one decade, that made sense. Your local paper was the only game in town, and if you wanted the story that's where you got it. But today? Today every paper in the country--hell, the world--is the same distance away from me. Why would I go to the Detroit Free-Press's version of that story? Or the San Francisco Chronicle's? Or one of the 3,957 other stories available? Every single one will essentially tell me the same thing--a few quotes may be different, but the main points will be the same. And if every one is the same and if every one is equidistant from me, why would I choose my local paper?

Sure, there's a certain amount of inertia that may lead me to my hometown broadsheet or tabloid but, ultimately, inertia wears away after a while (hell the Mac's even gaining market share again after two decades of Microsoft's inertia), and so the B and C and D and E and F level papers that are out there quickly begin to lose their competitive advantage, because their only advantage was a monopoly in their home market.

Right now that monopoly still exists in the printed paper, and so if a reader wants something to read on the bus to work or at a cafe, their local newspaper's got their 50 cents. But as the mobile web becomes more accessible that goes out the window as well.

So how do you save it? It's suddenly a new map, where the boundaries don't stop at your town's borders, but instead circle the globe. How do you save a paper that's gone from competing against one other (maybe, if you were lucky to live in a two-paper town) to suddenly competing against thousands?

You can't save it through web ads, because the eyeballs are too few. You don't save it through firewalls or subscriptions because disincentives will only reinforce the fact that your readers can get this stuff somewhere else. You don't save it by cutting muscle and bone, because a worse product can't help.

I think, ultimately, you CAN'T save it. And, as a result, the whole business comes toppling down.