Making a Print Newspaper or Magazine Successful in a Crowded Digital World

The Washington City Paper has had a 36-year history of hiring great editors—Jack Shafer and David Carr among them. It did a lot of good journalism but like many alternative weeklies it’s now dying. Here’s a graf from a Washington Post story about rumors that Armstrong Williams, a conservative of dubious reputation, might try to resurrect the liberal weekly:

“For more than 30 years, Washington City Paper has been a destination for arts coverage, withering profiles of local officials, and investigative reports on the city’s finances. For most of that time, it was a cash cow, raking in advertising dollars from local businesses, a go-to place for apartment and concert listings. But the alternative weekly industry took a hit in the age of Craigslist. The Village Voice in New York no longer has a print edition. The Boston Phoenix closed in 2013. And in 2008 the then-owner of City Paper filed for bankruptcy, putting the paper in a hole it’s been trying to claw its way out of ever since.”

What the Post story is saying is that starting about 10 years ago the digital world began to kill off the alt-weeklies because they were too dependent on readers picking up the paper to read the entertainment listings and the ads that went with the listings. Those City Paper listings lost their usefulness to Internet sites, which could provide more timely listings. What was left for the alt-weeklies was good journalism.

But good journalism costs money and the City Paper ad revenue came from the listings, not the good journalism. The revenue from those ads was crucial because the alt-weeklies were free circulation with no money coming in from readers.

It’s the big challenge for print editors now that we’re some 10 years into journalism’s digital revolution (the coming of broadband, iPhones, Google, and Facebook). If you’re editing a print publication, are you giving the reader anything unique or useful other than good journalism?

When I started at the Washingtonian in 1969, the magazine was four years old and floundering. It was doing the same kind of stories as the Washington Post and DC’s two other daily newspapers—the Washington Star and the Washington Daily News. Those early Washingtonian issues may have had good journalism but it wasn’t enough to draw readers and advertisers.

What wasn’t being done by magazines and newspapers back then was service journalism—stories that told the reader where to find the best restaurants, best schools, best weekend trips, best physicians, dentists, lawyers, architects, and so on. My editorial inspiration in 1969 was a new column in New York magazine called “The Underground Gourmet.”

Hey, we could do that in Washington—help readers find good restaurants—and a lot more. Those service stories were being ignored—often made fun of—by the Washington Post  for the next 20 or 30 years, letting the Washingtonian combine service stories and good journalism into a magazine that did well editorially and financially.

The challenge now for print journalism: Along with good journalism is there anything you can provide readers that’s unique or useful, that makes readers say it’s worth reading this, even paying for it.

If you can’t connect with readers that way, better have a rich owner or very low overhead. Or forget the printed page, go digital, and try to find revenue in the ever changing and crowded world of the Internet.

As the Cuba Gooding character in the movie “Jerry Maguire” shouted to Tom Cruise, “Show me the money! Show me the money!” It’s hard to do good journalism without it.


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