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Originally published Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM


The Democracy Papers

Newspapers will survive by doing what they do best

"It takes a licking but keeps on ticking," the famous commercial catchphrase that extolled the durability of Timex wristwatches, could also describe America's newspaper industry.

Special to The Times

The Democracy Papers is a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech. Technology has created space for more voices, yet fewer and fewer are heard.

The American press and media are being decimated by consolidation. This transformation from many owners into five or six large corporations and the lessening of small outlets for radio, newspapers, magazines and music are chilling a once robust marketplace of ideas. What should Americans do? This series explores the arguments and the backlash.

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"It takes a licking but keeps on ticking," the famous commercial catchphrase that extolled the durability of Timex wristwatches, could also describe America's newspaper industry.

The phrase itself was coined by my father, Russ Alben, who went on to become the creative director of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency. In four decades in the business, he witnessed the transition from single-sponsor radio and TV programs to multiple forms of media supported by many different kinds of advertisements.

We are witnessing an accelerated transition of media formats today, driven by a revolution in advertising that has taken root on the Internet and is now spilling over into traditional media.

Beginning in the 1940s, prominent corporations looked to the new medium of broadcast television to transmit their marketing messages to the masses. Over time, we witnessed the change in content from one-sponsor programs — Milton Berle's early "Texaco Star Theater," the "Colgate Theater" on NBC and a slew of other shows — to programs supported by 30-second TV spots. As advertising dollars flowed to the networks, they were able to invest in national programming and build the foundation for television production.

The Writers Guild of America strike and the growing popularity of Internet video now threaten the television industry — at a time when advertisers are looking for new ways to reachjaded viewers and there's increasing scrutiny over whether TV spots are effective or even being viewed at all in the era of TiVo and DVRs.

What's really happening beneath the surface here is a revolution in advertising along two dimensions: Ads can be targeted with precision to Web users, whereas print media are firing a shotgun over a broad audience; response to cyber ads can be measured and reported to the advertiser, while this is nearly impossible in the physical world unless a reader clips a coupon or responds to a dedicated phone line.

As a result of this twin-bladed revolution, content itself will change to better fit the new advertising formats. New Web ventures are already producing short films and media clips that are maximized for the delivery of Internet ads. For the first time, we have direct competition for video advertising dollars among new media, television and print journals that now have the ability to show video ads on their Web sites.

In 1996, at a Columbia University forum on "the future of news," Starwave Corporation CEO Mike Slade told an audience of newspaper moguls that their business model was in danger. The fragility of their business, according to Slade, stemmed from the following factors:

• Well over half of the content in a given daily edition is commodity content, such as feeds from The Associated Press and syndicated comics and columns;

• The other half is really the product of (give or take) 50 to 100 people with journalism degrees;

• A relatively small percentage of a given metro area subscribes to a daily paper;

• Newspapers rely on classified ads, which would one day be supplanted by free online classified ads — this was five years before the appearance of Craigslist.

Newspapers were facing a new breed of competitor in those days — Web publishers who had the startup cost of reaching their first online reader, but then minimal costs of reaching millions of readers. As Yahoo!, AOL and others built huge audiences, this model prevailed.

But this isn't another column about the death of print journalism. Smart newspapers will figure out how to extend their brands and readership into the online world. Recently, a poll showed that 80 percent of readers of a newspaper's print edition also visit that paper's Web site. This makes sense, given people's desire to access news from multiple places during the day and the growing realization that news gets updated frequently during a given 24-hour news cycle.

People are still hungry for news. The strength of newspapers is that they are trusted sources of information and that they cover local events in a way that a national news organization can't. In the next decade, we will continue to see local dailies shrink their national and international coverage, while they concentrate on what they do best — covering local beats of City Hall, crime and culture.

No one can predict the precise course of change, but we can pay careful attention to salient trends as content production shifts to meet the needs of a new generation of viewers and advertisers. And, as Mike Slade cautioned more than a decade ago, in a changing world, it makes sense to build a defensible business model.

Alex Alben, a high-tech executive based in Seattle, writes regularly on technology, media and politics for The Seattle Times. He is a former vice president and general counsel of Starwave Corporation. E-mail him at:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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