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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

The Death of the Reader

by Amanda Stutt

Somewhere out there, the people who thought up Craigslist are sitting pretty. It’s no secret that the independent, interactive online services site dealt a blow to the lucrative classified ads sections of many major daily newspapers, sending the business into a tailspin, scrambling to restructure and stay relevant.

This phenomenon has created a niche market for companies like The American Press Institute. The “old, monolithic newspaper model is in disruption,” they say, knowing that they are tapping into a psychography of businesses that are reacting to sustained losses of both revenue and readership, and are trying to figure out how to recover. The newspaper business is, after all, a business.

API has come up with a proposed solution called “Newspaper Next.” It’s a workshop led by Marketing Director Elaine Clisham that tours major urban beats and university campuses preaching a premise that would send chills down the spine of any journalist with a spark of creative fervour left.

“Your vision needs to be: Connect local customers with local businesses…developing products for people who have decided, for whatever reason, not to read,” said Clisham told leading local editors at a recent seminar at the University of British Columbia co-hosted by the UBC School of Journalism.

Instead of figuring out why core readers aren’t reading anymore, API proposes a shift in the critical mindset: Don’t worry about the reader — focus instead on the consumer.

Other, more interactive forms of media such as Google, Wikipedia, Netflix, and the like are thriving, and have largely replaced hardcopy daily newspapers for advertising and reference materials. Clisham referred to these sites as ‘disruptive innovators’ to the old newspaper model, and offered tips on how to stay competitive.

The “new” way is that news is not enough; rather, “we need to be everything you need to live in this community…We used to be the dominant source of information in our community… and we aren’t reaching as many people anymore,” Clisham said.

API’s biggest success model is The Desert Sun, a 22,000 daily circulation paper in Palm Springs, California. Clisham called The Desert Sun a good case study “because they were focused on organizational structure…in terms of building new audience, they’ve figured out the whole database thing very well.”

Steve Silberman, executive editor of The Desert Sun spoke at the seminar via a videotaped interview. “I was thinking too much about the reader and not enough about the consumer,” he said, explaining how implementing Newspaper Next’s model of restructuring worked for his newspaper.

Any mention of how to address public scepticism that may have turned readers’ eyes in other directions was conspicuously absent, but the point was not lost on some audience members.

Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun said, “the core question for a lot of us still seems to be in the newsrooms, which we really refer to as the high-end quality of our business…Are we covering too much, and uncovering too little?”

LaPointe is concerned about dipping into a “finite talent pool” of investigative journalists, and the hazards of placing too much emphasis on feedback to a market.

“We will not have the resources to break ground and investigate matters that raise public awareness and mobilize their interest and passion…You can’t take your eye off the ball,” he said. “We are coming from a model where, it’s not that we didn’t ask people what they wanted, we thought that part of the beauty of journalism was that we could, in fact, create a market for something. That you could lead the public experience and raise their awareness”.

But Chisholm maintained that newspapers no longer have the ability to create a market. “For better or worse, those days are over,” she responded, reiterating that the newspaper business must focus instead on tapping into “what the consumer wants.”

“No journalist…can survive in this media environment without understanding how business works and how a journalism organization can make money,” said Clisham. “We’re focused on the future and how to pay for that journalism.”

She agreed there is a strong market for investigative journalism, but rather than addressing ways to get the reader engaged in that journalism she asked, “how do we engage people who might not pick up the paper but still need access to information?”

Chisholm advised newspapers to nuance and digitalize the local telephone directory, tapping into consumers’ unmet needs — such as late night pizza-cravings. She suggested an online service directory with entertainment options and advertisements for “low-end pizza restaurants.”

“Local information [that is] easily accessible is a huge resource for building local audiences,” she said. “We need to get out of the mindset of creating content, and into the mindset of creating a platform.”

Clisham emphasized focusing energy on putting out “light versions of daily newspapers.” Examples of this model in Vancouver are 24hrs and the youth-oriented online Dose. “Circulation” will become “distribution” said Clisham, referring to the guy who stands on the street corner handing out newspapers to passers-by.

At the end of the day, critical ethical questions resonate. What has happened to the readers? Spending the morning coffee or transit commute immersed in a hardcopy of the local daily is rapidly becoming a vanquished pastime. So why aren’t readers reading anymore?

These questions have broad societal implications that Newspaper Next failed to address. Should the dominant paradigm in journalism shift from a focus on conveying messages to the reader and creating a market for consciousness-raising to a model that focuses on advertising products and services to a consumer? It’s these questions that haunt the sparsely populated hallways of the world of investigative journalism, and that anyone concerned with the future of newspapers should be asking.

With files from Stephanie Lim

AMANDA STUTT holds an MA degree from the UBC School of Journalism. She completed a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. Her writing has appeared in the Ubyssey, The Seed and the Tyee. She specializes in investigative and human- interest journalism.

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