Newspapers: Defending the indefensible

Newspapers and the postal service are in a tug-of-war over couponsWhat happens when one industry in disruption runs into a business conflict with another industry in disruption? Think of two huge carnivores fighting over a third helpless beast at the tar pits of LeBrea.

An editorial in the Madison Eagle newspaper of Bernardsville, NJ last week caught my attention, because it provides a new enemy for newspapers — the United States Postal Service (USPS) — and proposes the same tired refrain of a threat to freedom, if something isn’t done about it. Last month, the Postal RegulatoryCommission approved a three-year discount deal to boost use of the mail system by Valassis Communications, which sends mass coupon mailings to homes under its RedPlum brand. Newspapers opposed the deal, because it cuts into “their” value proposition on delivering coupons via the Sunday paper.

I get that this is yet another rug being pulled out from under the newspaper business, but I object to the industry’s defense, as spelled out beautifully in the Eagleeditorial:

To newspapers that count on advertising to pay its reporters and cover the news, this USPS plan is beyond alarming – it’s a threat to journalism and an informed public. Many think it will push some newspapers in America already struggling with a fragile economy and Internet competition over the edge.

If that or anything like it happens, communities across our country will suffer the most long-term harm.

…We don’t fear the Internet; we are using it, and it is vastly expanding our ability to inform the public up-to-the-minute.

But, two things to keep in mind: The most reliable and comprehensive news on the Internet is posted by journalists who work for print newspapers. Anything that weakens those newspapers will have a negative ripple effect on access to solid, accurate news on the Web.

And two: This is a media age not only in revolution, but in transition, to a future no one can fully describe. There are still many readers who aren’t satisfied that the news has really been reported and disseminated “until it’s in print.”

I’m especially struck anytime I read such hubris as: “The most reliable and comprehensive news on the Internet is posted by journalists who work for print newspapers.” Let’s ask the Pulitzer Prize winning Huffington Post about that.

Do newspapers truly believe stuff like this, that they are so important to freedom in the U.S. that their loss would be a threat to an informed public? In a capitalist economy, the powers that be simply say, “Cry me a river,” for only fit businesses are allowed to thrive. Fifteen years ago, newspapers had a virtual monopoly on classifieds, display advertising, and coupons. As each one has been stripped away, the industry has chosen not to compete with the disruptors, but instead do nothing except cry “foul” and offer a threat to freedom as the consequences of their doom.

As Lisa Williams famously wrote in 2008: “Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.” Do I really need to go into the ways it’s already happening?

Comments

  1. Thanks for writing about this subject. I agree that journalism will survive the seismic shifts that are currently taking place in the media landscape. The marketplace is going to play itself out, and the consumer will benefit from the news reporting that is done across all platforms.

    What is not mentioned in your analysis, is this issue is about the Postal Service — a government enterprise — causing a disruption by giving a special rate deal that is only available to one company, Valassis Direct Mail. The Postal Service and the independent regulatory body that oversees it, have conceded that the purpose of this special deal is solely to move advertising inserts from newspapers’ Sunday editions into the mail.

    Newspapers don’t mind competition, we have plenty of it. But we object that the Postal Service is giving a special rate deal to one company so that it can better compete in local advertising markets. The Postal Service should treat mailers equally in rates and service –not striving to cut special rate deals for one national mailer for the purpose of disrupting business from an entire industry.

    Thanks for reading,

    Paul Boyle
    Newspaper Association of America

  2. Paul, I appreciate you weighing in on this, and I certainly don’t envy you your position. Surely, you must ask yourself what the people as a whole think about on things like this. I can’t imagine that people would “vote” for newspapers over the Postal Service when asked which they’d rather save. Life isn’t fair, and especially these days for newspapers. I do wish you’d listen more to those outside your industry for advice on what to do, for the Web and all its disruptive influence is not the sustaining innovation that belies your behavior in its wake.

  3. i agree with paul as valassis salespeople were known to go out of their way to slam ‘junkmail’ at every frickin’ turn prior to their purchase of advo.

    great valassis mgmt, btw, they took two companies valued at over a billion each and turned them into one… worth a billion.

    still can’t figure out the 800 or so million carried on their books as intangibles either.

  4. The local newspaper in my area has resorted to dropping a “free” newspaper comprised of mostly advertising wrapping a bit of entertainment news; and inside is a metric crapload of coupons and advertising for big box stores and a couple large supermarkets.

    They conveniently drop this in the driveway every Wednesday and Saturday, and I have to out, pick it up and throw it away. In the case of this newspaper, I’d rather have it at least show up where I don’t have to fish it out of the street or chase it down after the wind takes its turns with it.

    Newspapers can’t seem to shake their wood-pulp addiction. I’d gladly give my local $10 a month for what used to be real local news if I could read it online. They continue to use their web site as a teaser for print, when I don’t *want* their paper. I simply don’t have the time nor the desire to sit with their paper and skim through it.

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