Please stop calling print the 'core product' (explained)

I twittered an offhand remark yesterday: "Please stop calling print the core product." It was retweeted quite a bit, and I received some "please explain" queries. Here's my explanation.

If you're still thinking your core product is a newspaper, you're misleading yourself and maybe even killing your business.

Your core business is not print.

And this may dismay the online news crowd, but your core product isn't news.

In fact, you need to stop thinking that advertising supports news and start thinking about how news (and other content) supports advertising.

Your core business is helping others sell their goods and services.

That's been true since the middle of the 19th century, when the industrial revolution transformed newspapers from subsidized journals aimed at the political class into commercial mass media aimed at everyone, or at least everyone who could read.

Newspaper offices became large-scale factories, churning out hundreds of thousands of copies that were sold at a pittance, sometimes even at a loss, in order to build a deliverable audience for advertisers. This was called the "penny press," and it revolutionized journalism as well as the business model that supported it.

Your core product is a commercially relevant audience, gathered through multiple print channels (daily paper, weekly free TMC, free specialty products) and now also through multiple digital channels (web site, "moms" and other specialty sites, mobile, email, and now even distributed behavioral advertising networks).

What I'm saying shouldn't be new. The original Innosight NewspaperNext report clearly advocated a "new core" concept. It was urging us to learn to think about innovating outside that core, but it seems to me that most of us don't even understand our own core business. Not if we keep identifying print as that core.


...your product is not newspapers, or news or information. It is readership. Which makes even printie journalists happy because they think it means they have to take care of their readers. Which is true. And the main corollary, for me, is that you shouldn't do anything which tends to reduce readership (like paywalls). And SEO is still a basic part of a good core business strategy.

In total agreement here - I was always amazed that the people that knew it to be the case were the exception, rather than the rule!

Steve - thanks for this insight and refined analysis. Too much of the conversation gets bogged down in simple assumptions that effectively limit real understanding and progress. A related point that has almost no visibility is that the "value" of a newspaper has a third major constituency beyond the business and it's advertising clients who agree that the value is in advertising and that readership is the product. On the other side is the readership themselves: for our readers, the news is the product. This fact is devalued even further online because so many argue that readers will not pay for news. But when seen from the perspective of print subscribers, we already DO pay for news. I would argue that we currently don't pay for news online because of the precedent set when newspapers adopted the assumption that brick-and-morter businesses must do anything necessary to stake a claim for eyeballs on the web, including giving content away. This may have made some sense for national brands like NYT who could monetize increased readership with more success through advertising, but that same assumption has been beside the point and destructive for the vast majority of dailies: local newspapers in small markets. I think it is inevitable that we will see pay-for-content revenue coming back online (no pun intended) in the next several years - at least for local newspapers. If so, perhaps the news itself will get it's due as a product with directly perceived value.

Our core *product* is news (or more accurately "news and information"), our core *business* is using that core product to deliver a commercially relevant audience to people who will pay us for it. By making our core product better we can attract more audience and therefore generate more revenue. Now, true, if we abandon that core product and focus entirely on simply delivering a commercially relevant audience without it we could be far more successful (that is if you measure success only by revenue, as many seem to). You know, add a little more "spice" to our stories like by adding a few extra details to the sexual assault stories maybe... or outing the peccadilloes of our elected officials... or ultimately replacing those "I lost 30lbs!" ads with "These girls are in your area!" ads. We could, but generally speaking, we wont. Why? Because our core product is news and information... or at least it should be.

This is a bit of an eye-opener for me. I thought the core product was news and advertising supported the production of that product. Having advertising as your core business as a news org seems backwards to me. If news production is guided by the goal of getting eyeballs you will end up with a sensationalist rag. Surely news is a valuable enough commodity in itself for us to ensure its production is the main aim, however we pay for it.

I agreed with your tweet, at least what I thought you meant. This explanation, though, is disillusioning. You know I luv ya, man, but when did you go over to the dark side and how did I miss it? Or maybe this is a temporary spasm brought on by that 84-degree heat there in jawjuh. I hope. An audience is not a product except in the most manipulative sense. If any of the newspapers I read consider that I am their product instead of who they ultimately need to serve and satisfy, then they clearly deserve to go out of business the way they are heading. Banner hede on their last Page One: "Our product walked away" I won't even get into what those of use who are in this business to do some good think about the idea that a commercially relevant audience is our core contribution to the world. Me thinks you confuse business model with product, just like the people who you (I thought) rightfully chastised in your tweet confuse format with product.

Maybe some of this is point of view. Maybe some of it is language.

I grew up in the newsroom and understand and share the general point of view about the vital nature of news. Please understand that I'm not saying news is not essential to the business. It is, and it's immensely essential to the economic and political health of a community.

But newsrooms are categorically blind to the underlying business realities of their own employers. This is, sadly, going to lead to even more business failures as big city dailies crater and poorly thought-out, quixotic Web-only efforts spring up to fill the editorial void.

The business of newspapering is what we usually call advertising. That's where the money comes from, and the product we sell is actually a marketing / communications service to businesses, primarily local.

Internalizing this truth shouldn't be frightening -- it can help us recognize opportunities to make our business stronger in ways that also strengthen our public service mission.

That core public service mission also shouldn't be overlooked here, either -- it's not about the Web, nor print. But it ultimately also is not news. News, too, is a tool for accomplishing the underlying goal. But that's fodder for a completely different blog item.

Perhaps some of this is indeed just language, terminology, you say product, I say purpose. The POV, though, really is different among a lot of people in this debate. I often think it boils down to are you publishing a newspaper to make money or are you making money to publish a newspaper. Kantian ethics aside, when life is good and all things possible, you often wind up at the same place or at least the same vicinity. The true measure of a person, or a business, however, is the decisions made in crisis, when options are limited and the only places you can wind up are diametrically different. In such a situation, the sops offered to what are really secondary priorities -- news, community, social mission, informed society -- don't wash anymore and the fundamental difference in POV emerges. That's where our industry is now, in that kind of crisis. Earl Wilkinson of INMA did a quick research thing recently interviewing newspapers worldwide looking for the patterns in their problems. (He published it only in a Facebook group so I don't think it's out there yet.) His conclusion: Newspapers aren't in trouble so much as newspaper companies. It's a matter of POV which of those is most important. I think it is clear from this debate, though, that their core products are different.