Why newspaper subscribers cannot change

I spent yesterday pondering Umair Haque's new The Nichepaper Manifesto. I'm seeing the decline of print and broadcast news models as a forerunner of the transition that higher ed will face soon. In this blog, I'll explore the search for a new end game in journalism next, as preparation for furthering our understanding of how higher ed will get disrupted soon.

Umair Haque has shown us eight ways out of the declining revenues and value propositions of established newspapers. He foresees a new institution and endgame for Journalism 2.0:
  1. Give people the news --> impart meaningful, lasting knowledge
  2. Dictate to their readers what news and opinion are --> co-create knowledge by curating comments to have a dialogue with the audience
  3. Tell quickly-forgotten stories for information --> let the story develop, surface, thicken, and climax for knowledge
  4. Strive for circulation, by telling the same stories in the same ways --> strive to develop capabilities that are inimitable by rivals
  5. Publish weekly columns and daily articles --> develop topics of conversation and let them co-evolve with readers.
  6. Seek perfect grammar, perfect ledes, perfect headlines --> provoke readers to think
  7. Sellout to advertisers, PR flaks, powerful "sources," and lobbyists --> pitch topics and stories to the community and let the best ones snowball
  8. Make a big deal about the use of new technologies --> use whatever works best for a given task
These are easy transitions to pull off with news watchers who do not read newspapers or news magazines. Those customers are as much a part of the innovation as the innovators of new models for journalism. Their revised expectations, value constructs, patterns of use and sense of curiosity -- are profoundly different from those who read newspapers religiously. Established newspapers are no more stuck in their ways than their paid subscribers. Together they perpetuate the incumbent paradigm and balk at the changes underway.

Here's how I see avid newspaper readers who maintain their paid subscriptions willingly:
  • Passivity: Subscribers are passive consumers of products and services who scour the print ads for bargains. They are passive investors in real estate, retirement funds and speculative investments who rely on brokers and raters to guide their decisions. They are passive voters who trust their elected representatives to provide good government so long as the newspapers watchdog them. They are passive audiences of media personalities who get put on pedestals and followed as leaders of taste, fads and mass consumption.
  • Helplessness: Subscribers do not have a problem getting very informed about situations they can do nothing about. They do not expect to act responsibly, make a difference or impact their communities. It's enough to be informed to live with feeling powerless and ineffective. Keeping current with the news gives them much to worry about, form opinions about and find fault with -- while doing nothing to alleviate their concerns.
  • Thrill seeking: Subscribers live mundane lives in need of excitement. The news provides voyeuristic looks at thrilling situations with high drama, escalating tensions and unpredictable outcomes. A journalistic focus on violent crimes, scandals and disasters meets this expectation superbly. The news provides fodder for conversations that traffic in astonishment, disgust or catastrophizing.
  • Dependency on authority figures: Subscribers do not want to think for themselves, rock the boat or create hard feelings. Their approach to getting along with family members, colleagues and neighbors is passive aggressive. They need to be told what to think in order to think alike and not get into trouble by what they're thinking. They have sold out to the groups they fear getting rejected by and naturally trust journalists who have sold out also.
If established newspapers decided to change before their subscribers changed, they would implicitly send messages to their market like:
  • we don't want your money anymore
  • we don't respect your expectations of us or loyalty to us
  • we want to lose your trust and confidence in us
  • we want to mess with your minds and sense of what's appropriate
  • we have no use for your continued support
  • we now think you've been wrong about us all these years

It's no wonder incumbent players in established industries go down with their sinking ships. They are not only blinded by their successes. They are entangled with their paying customers.


  1. When I first read this, I thought Umair Haque was talking about higher ed (yes, I just skimmed to the bullets, I admit it). I think you could easily replace "newspapers" with "colleges" and "subscribers" with "traditional students".

  2. Thanks V! It's sure looking like it will be easy to draw many parallels to higher ed from this evolving exploration of journalism :-)