Elephant Diaries: The Railroad Metaphor

There’s a cliche that keeps popping up in the discussion of newspapers’ futures that links the fate of my business today with railroads of old. Railroads, the argument goes, lost out to the trucking industry because they thought they were in the railroad business, rather than the transportation business. Newspapers, by analogy, are failing because they think they’re in the newspaper business, rather than the news business.

This graph, from Zachary Seward at Nieman, shows how wrong that argument is:

Regional newspaper circulation

Regional newspaper circulation

Note the rising trend. By most any measure, newspapers are being enormously successful in attracting web readers. We all have huge audiences. Newspapers in general were among the earliest and most aggressive adopters of the Internet as a new means to deliver information to their customers. The problem is not the use of the web to deliver the news, but rather the revenue model that goes with it. Ad revenue has not followed.

Our mistake was to think we were in the news delivery business, rather than the ad delivery business.