Google is an Optimist. Newspapers are Pessimists.

In my last column, “SEOs, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!,” I made some recommendations for the newspaper industry that some felt were a bit extreme. In particular, Roe Pressley from took the time to address some of my recommendations.

Roe wrote: “I must contest the affirmation that organizations formerly known as newspapers need to be the Twitters or Facebooks of their communities. Maybe I misunderstood the point here, but it seemed you further implied that legitimate news organizations need to change to compete with decentralized, peer-to-peer (Web 2.0?) networks and communities and become an online ‘social -centers.’ The problem is this: People need official news outlets to get facts. We cannot depend on the unregulated, user-generated blog model to get unbiased information about things, whether it’s politics, economics, or just fluffy feel-good news stories.”

Well, Roe, you completely understood the point. What you find uncomfortable and distasteful is exactly what I’m proposing. “Decentralized, peer-to-peer” is precisely where the game is at. However, your disbelief is something I have encountered before. I’ve had the opportunity to participate on a year-long Reader’s Advisory Panel for my local newspaper where I prescribed this and much more.

The plan I proposed suggests newspapers should be thinking about becoming all media for their community: TV, radio, community center, private library, education center.

Fear not, my suggestions were met with looks and comments any mentally-challenged madman should expect to get. I was quickly assured that my ideas were nowhere in any plans or concepts. Nothing I suggested would be feasible or “realistic.” Thanks for playing.

Newspapers are Shrinking

This article from public TV News show Frontline has some interesting stats on the newspaper world:

1. The [newspaper” industry peaked early in 1920s, when the average household read 1.3 newspapers a day. By 2001, almost one out of every two households no longer read a newspaper.

2. When newspapers had a near-monopoly over retailers’ access to customers, publishers enjoyed high profits. Today, as the industry grapples with competing platforms, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain profit levels of 15 to 20 percent without implementing cost-cutting measures.

Because of this, our newspapers are shrinking. I’ve seen newspapers lose both girth and stature. There are less pages and, in some cases, smaller dimensions. I hate paying over $5 for the Sunday New York Times of today. While the reporting it has continues to be first class, there definitely isn’t as much of it as there was even a couple years ago.

All newspapers are developing strategies. My local newspaper is going practically all local. They do almost no national or international news. Four major newspaper companies: The Tribune Company, Gannett, Hearst Corporation and The New York Times Company are coming together to form quadrantONE. This will be a central advertising portal to sell local ads in these news publishers. Their executives say quadrantONE will be able to reach about 50 million unique visitors a month.

While 50 million uniques may appear on the surface to be a lot, consider that this past December people did nearly 10 billion searches on the major search engines, and do so month after month. More than 71 percent of the U.S. population is now online, which is a 120 percent growth between 2000 and 2007. Compare that to my previous statistic that 1 out of 2 households don’t get a newspaper at all.

And quadrantONE is just the latest in a string of efforts by the newspaper industry to join together with offline rivals to gain more advertising leverage online. There’s Yahoo’s newspaper consortium, now with Twelve publishers on board. There’s the granddaddy of online newspaper tie-ups, the Belo/Gannett/McClatchy/Tribune/WaPo-powered Classified Ventures, which together run, and Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune are also investors in CareerBuilder. While some of these efforts have been successful, none has proven to be the final answer for how newspapers can adapt t the Web.

Considering the Possibilities

The Internet is a speeding freight train. If newspapers, and for that matter all traditional media, don’t begin immediately to think drastically different, there is going to be a new sheriff in town.

Do you think Google would be opposed to making a daily print version of itself? It would do it in a heartbeat. And if Google did it, it would probably come from a kiosk that was customized for the specific user. For example, imagine pulling up to a gas station in a town you have never been before, go to a Google Kiosk at the pump, enter your Google username and password and get a custom print out of local news, events and entertainment all based on what you like.

So, while newspapers have told me directly to my face what won’t work, what isn’t in their business plan, how holy their journalistic quality is, Google buys another property, puts another beta program into the consumer space, imagines what is possible. Google is an optimist. Newspapers are pessimists.

I honestly don’t care what happens to newspapers. The market is the jungle. The market is natural selection and will take care of this debate without us.

However, I do know there are those that do care about newspapers. They care very deeply. If these people want their newspaper to succeed in a meaningful way, they have to stop making incremental moves while expecting gigantic results. That’s the definition of insanity. They simply must become the center of innovation, courage and change.

The likes of quadrantONE is a tissue on a burst jugular. It doesn’t address the problem. If this is the “big idea” coming from the heavy hitters in the newspaper world, that’s scary.

“Inaction isn’t prudent – it’s radical.”

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