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This article was published on May 4, 2009

Will (or should?) compassion save the newspaper industry?

Will (or should?) compassion save the newspaper industry?
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Story by

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Founder & board member, TNW

Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

newspapersA few weeks ago I met a magazine publisher. We spoke about the future of publishing and the web. It was an interesting discussion because he knew a lot about publishing and I knew a lot about the Internet.

At one point he asked me what magazines and newspapers I subscribed to. I thought for a moment and had to admit that the only magazine I read is Wired magazine which I buy at a newsstand every month. Then he asked me where I got my news from and I explained that I am subscribed to several local and global news sources online. Did I pay for any of these, was his next question. No, I didn’t, I answered. He smiled, and said:

“Don’t you feel guilty for getting all that content without paying for it?”

Of course I explained to him that I didn’t and that although I didn’t actually transfer money to any of these sources I did pay with my attention to their advertisements and that I might even, at one point, consider paying a fee for certain content.

Although the discussion moved on after that the ‘guilty’ question kept lingering in the back of my mind. Somehow I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer. In his line of thought I was guilty of the demise of the newspaper industry, and I had admitted as much. It is all my fault.

Today Reuters reports (for free) that Warren Buffett is giving up on the newspaper industry. In an incredible reversal of fortunes he goes so far as to say that “the reeling industry may never recover because it lacks a sustainable business model”.

Wow. That is what most newspapers are reporting about most Internet companies. No sustainable business model? Really? There is more: “Twenty, thirty years ago, they were a product that had pricing power that was essential,” said Buffett. “They have lost that essential nature.”

Yes, they lost it, and are proud of it.

The editor I spoke with proudly proclaimed that he didn’t get a computer until about a year ago. He refused to check out Twitter, thought blogs were just a waste of time and regarded email as a mere nuisance.

Then it hit me; I couldn’t find an answer to his question because it was the wrong question.

I don’t feel guilty for getting my news online just as I can only assume nobody felt guilty for trading in their horse and carriage for an automobile in 1910. I’m sure the local farrier wasn’t too happy about the whole thing but blaming the customer surely didn’t help.

As it turns out the newspaper industry had a healthy lifespan of about 300 years. Their business plan worked out fine. It just wasn’t sustainable.

Was this inevitable?

No, it wasn’t. They owe it to themselves. They didn’t cause their own demise but stood by, ignorant, arrogant and too proud to do anything about it, as the world changed.


Ask yourself this; if ads are so damned important to newspapers, why didn’t any of them invent Google Adwords? Or buy into them when they were just getting started?

If classified advertising was such a huge cash cow, why didn’t anyone buy eBay?

The answer is because these newspapers refused to evolve. They refused to acknowledge the fact that the world is changing. They thought they were big, powerful and strong enough to stay relevant.

Unfortunately for the newspaper  industry survival of the fittest isn’t about strength but about who is most adaptable to change.

UPDATE: also read this latest post on Techcrunch on the future of newspapers. one quote: “It’s not the “paper” part of newspaper that’s the problem, it’s the “news.” As in, newspapers are way too slow at delivering it in the age of the Internet. People are unsubscribing from newspapers because what’s the point of reading something in print a day after you’ve read it online?”