Will Work for Food

Newspapers are going to great lengths to stop the readership decline.

Who says newspapers are going down the tubes without a fight? Since 1786, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a paper in western Massachusetts with a circulation of about 18,000, has been publishing the latest world, national, and local news for the good citizens of the college towns of Northampton and Amherst, as well as other nearby communities. Now, in addition to journalism—that abstract, increasingly devalued commodity—the paper has started offering its readers a far more tangible service: fixing their virus-addled home computers.

"Drop your PC off at the Gazette," says the ad that's been running in recent issues of the paper. "Pick it up the next day." The price, $49, appears in boldface, and so it should. That's a very reasonable number, especially given that the Gazette promises its tech staff will remove adware, spyware, and viruses, plus perform updates and other soul-killing tech busywork that most of us detest. I recently hired one of those in-home repair outfits for the same tasks, and it ran to more than three times the paper's price. (Gazette readers beware: The ad touts this as an "introductory offer.")

It's not unusual for newspaper companies to have side businesses. Hiring out the printing presses for outside jobs, for example, is a common source of extra income, says John Kimball, chief marketing officer of the Newspaper Association of America in Vienna, Va. But the Gazette's PC fix-it service is a relatively new twist. "This is a little different," Kimball says. "I've not heard of a newspaper saying, 'Come in, and for fifty bucks we'll offer tech computer support.' "

The Gazette's ad, which is headlined, "Affordable, User-Friendly Computer Assistance," also leverages the paper's reputation as a well-intentioned public-spirited institution. After all, who are you gonna trust with your computer—some random geek you've never met before who pulls up in a van, or the newspaper that's been serving your region since just after the Revolution?

With newspaper circulation numbers steadily sinking—the latest declines have the whole business reeling—one survival strategy could be to mine whatever remains of a broadsheet's good name by offering new products and services, even of the nonjournalistic, household-chores variety.

"Newspapers are doing all kinds of things to connect with the audience," says Kimball. "All of these things are various touch points that connect the newspaper's brand to the market."

In fact, nothing quite so elaborate was on the Gazette's mind when it decided to go into the IT business. Publisher Peter L. DeRose told me that while his family-owned paper has indeed been hit by the national circulation slump—"We're participating fully in that"—he came up with the idea simply as a way to defray the cost of additional staff the company needed to care for its own computers.

The Gazette, which employs about 150 people, had only two dedicated staffers looking after its systems, and it needed a third for 24-hour coverage. The PC repair business was started to help cover the salary of that extra person, the idea being that during slow times, the techies could work on sick computers brought in by the public. DeRose says that the strategy seems to be working. Though the service is new, it already has a backlog of customers and is covering half the salary of the new hire.

In other words, this was just a creative way to cover costs. It's a tiny idea, unlikely to spread very far and certainly not the sort of thing that can rescue the newspaper business from whatever fate has in store for it. But it's also emblematic of the way that the information culture is changing. Here is a newspaper, a medium that fewer and fewer people care about enough to buy with their spare change (a Gazette costs 50 cents), balancing its books by helping people use a new medium they need and care about so desperately, they'll pay thousands of dollars for the equipment necessary to go online.

What if the reverse happened, and the media with all the future mojo offered to come in and fix everyone's newspaper? In a way, online news harvesters like Google News have been doing just that, taking the core product that has always made newspapers valuable—the journalism—and distributing it far and wide. Once upon a time, we associated news closely with the outlets that produced it. Now it feels a bit silly to pay 50 cents to buy news from a wholesaler like a newspaper, because news is out there all day and night, as abundant and free as oxygen.

Of course, the problem with the disaggregation of news is that it's not "fixing" newspapers at all—it's destroying them.

So newspapers will do what they have to do to survive. Most are high-minded institutions, full of smart, beneficent, well-educated people. And, in addition to PC repair, there are any number of mundane tasks that the public would gladly hire them to perform. Oil changes, for example (some newspapers have large garages that would be perfect for this). Child care (many journalists have excellent parenting skills and could easily watch several kids while on the phone interviewing sources).

Newspapers might even begin offering the public yoga classes and massage, right in the newsroom. After all, the new media universe is a fast-paced, stressful place, and somebody has to teach folks to relax and enjoy life, like in the old days.