How Achewood is killing the American newspaper

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In his paean to Webcomic Achewood the other day, my fellow time.com blogger Lev Grossman mentioned in passing that “I always loved comic strips—that was the sole reason my family ever bought the Boston Globe growing up.”

That got me thinking. There’s been a ton written about how Craigslist is wiping out the newspaper classified advertising business. It’s doing it with such ease in part because Craig Newmark isn’t really a capitalist, and thus doesn’t charge much for ads, but mainly because there’s no particular connection between the classified ads in a newspaper and anything else in the paper. The newspaper is just a distribution channel for the ads, and now a far more efficient one has come along.

But it’s not just the classifieds. Some newspaper buyers—like the Grossman family, apparently—have been getting it just for the comics. Others have been buying it for the supermarket sale ads, others for the stock market tables, others for those swell Cal Thomas columns on the op-ed page, others for the weather forecast, others for movie showtimes, others for sports scores, others for stories on national and world events, and yet others for the local news, sports, and lifestyle coverage. The size of that last group is anybody’s guess, but it has to be significantly smaller than the total universe of newspaper buyers.

The local newspaper, in particular the big metropolitan daily, is a distribution channel—a series of tubes, if you will—for a whole bunch of stuff that its staff doesn’t create, along with a little bit of stuff (articles) that they do. In most cities it was until recently a monopoly distribution channel, and therefore staggeringly profitable.

Now most of that stuff can be delivered significantly more efficiently online by people who have nothing to do with the local newspaper. The only possible exception is local news, sports, and lifestyle coverage. So newspaper owners and prospective newspaper buyers have been emphasizing that lately, and rightly so. But delivering local news to people who want it, either on paper or online, is never going to be anything close to the spectacular business that serving as a metropolitan area’s chief distribution channel for information, advertising, and comics was.

Which leads me to a couple of thoughts:

1) You’ll occasionally hear people attribute newspapers’ struggles to the lameness of the articles they print. There are certainly lots of lame articles in newspapers. There were 10 years ago, too. Newspapers weren’t struggling then. Some of that may have to do with the fact that the Internet makes it easier to find better articles elsewhere. But that has to be a pretty minor factor in comparison with the distribution-channel breakdown outlined above. (Although I do find this theory intriguing.)

2) All of the established media face new competition these days. But for most–national newspapers, small local papers, TV stations, magazines, movie production companies–it’s a case of losing relative market share and/or figuring out how to deliver their product via the Internet. That will be tough. Some will go out of business. But I can’t think of anybody else facing the same utter destruction of their business model that the metro daily newspapers are.

Update: Thanks for the comments (I found Cosmic Ray’s to be especially heartening), and sorry for taking so long to get some of them posted. My headline, by the way, was meant ironically. (Movable Type doesn’t appear to offer a special irony font.)

Update 2: I put up a post highlighting a couple of the comments here.

Update 3: Warren Buffett weighs in (on newspaper economics, not on Achewood) here.

Update 4: Yet another post on newspapers (this one outlining some reasons for their troubles beyond the loss of a distribution monopoly).

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