Newspapers need to be ‘elitist’ to survive, says Meyer

A few years ago I penned a blog post about the future of newspapers and suggested that ‘prestige’ was one of the keys to unlocking a prosperous future for newsprint. So I thought it was pretty interesting to read an article today by Philip Meyer who suggested making the newspaper more ‘elitist’ would be a wise move.

Philip Meyer is one of the industry’s most lauded researchers and wrote an intriguing book called ‘The Vanishing Newspaper – Saving Journalism in the Information Age‘. Philip Meyer suggests a move away from printing newspapers on a daily basis combined with a stronger focus on visual presentation and what he describes as ‘evidence-based’ journalism.

One can infer several things from this viewpoint, the first of which is that daily newspapers need to be free. Secondly, by moving to a less frequent publishing schedule, you can focus more on providing content that digs deeper and thus has more value than what is currently being offered in the daily newspaper or blogs for that matter.

“Recently, I took another look at the readership data from the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and tried a different metric. Reasoning that you could still make a pretty good business from an audience reading less than daily, I tracked the percentage of adults who reported reading a newspaper at least once a week. That chart, from 1972 to 2002, shows a much clearer leveling off in the 1980s. Then, at the end of the decade, as though somebody blew a whistle and ordered a column-right march, the line snakes downward again. Now that information is so plentiful, we don’t need new information so much as help in processing what’s already available.

Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it. The raw material for this processing is evidence-based journalism, something that bloggers are not good at originating. Not all readers demand such quality, but the educated, opinion-leading, news-junkie core of the audience always will. They will insist on it as a defense against “persuasive communication,” the euphemism for advertising, public relations and spin that exploits the confusion of information overload.

Readers need and want to be equipped with truth-based defenses. Newspapers might have a chance if they can meet that need by holding on to the kind of content that gives them their natural community influence. To keep the resources for doing that, they will have to jettison the frivolous items in the content buffet.”

Mario Garcia, another industry heavyweight, sums it all up…

I think the future lies somewhere at this intersection, the one where a combination The New York Times/The Economist/Die Zeit meet a colorful free version of USAToday. Of course, a strong online edition is a vital requirement. The newspaper of the future – elite or free – is simply a companion to a robust and newsy online edition.