The other day my daughter, or someone she was reading, likened the future of newspapers to the fate of milkmen. They couldn’t imagine the service would fade away, but it did. Radio dramas were once popular, too, but they’re now a relic too.
But in these examples is kind of buried a lesson for newspapers: Don’t confuse your service with your medium. The delivery business didn’t die, just the delivery of milk. The radio business is still alive and kicking, with a lot less fictional storytelling (whatever you think of talk radio).
Similarly, people might stop reading news on paper, but paper probably won’t vanish as a medium. Books and magazines are still around (though they too are threatened by electronic versions), and free entertainment weeklies and shoppers are likely to persist.
The newspaper that survives then might be the one that news may not be the best thing to put on paper. Not in an age when printed words are hours or even days older than what’s available on the Internet.
Instead of trying to be timely, newspapers would be wise to embrace the timeless, original content with a long shelf life. Useful information, like how-to and where-to and why-to stories. Explanatory writing. More commentary, including humor. Newsy storytelling, that revisits and retells events in cliffhanger style. Living advice. More puzzles and comics, of course. Plus why don’t papers create “programming,” the way TV does?
Not-so newsy papers could become nosey papers, by hosting “reality shows” the way TV does. Follow real life dramas (like a divorce or a difficult pregnancy or life in prison) or even set up local versions of shows like Biggest Loser, Survivor, or Big Brother.
Or “host” contests that play out dramatically like quiz shows.
Reality shows and game shows have helped TV networks survive. Why not newspapers?
Shouldn’t somebody try it?
For more concrete ideas, see my “How to Save Newspapers” website.