Friday, July 11, 2008

Ways the newspaper industry can save itself

Over at Media Nation, Dan Kennedy has been making some interesting points [and having interesting conversations] about the state of the media industry. It's standard fare for him; that is what his blog is about. But the last few days, there has been a lot to talk about.
Thursday, he posted this about the Phoenix's Adam Reilly's story about more employment changes at the Boston Globe: ["Moving on at the Globe"].
I waited a bit before posting but this has been on my mind for a while, obviously, because I work in the industry. Here are some of the thoughts I posted:

I don't know about all of this. I have been thinking about everything going on in the media business for quite a while now and I truly don't know what the model is. I have some ideas, which I will get to in a second.
This is what I do know: Print editions provide much more than online editions. For example, I've been subscribing to the WSJ now for about three years. I started buying it after I got a free copy outside the hotel room at a radio seminar I was at. I loved the thing and subscribed right away. There were a ton of articles about all kinds of different aspects of the business world and other things. When the redesign happened, I was even more excited since it was even more user friendly than before. I also got to check out how the big companies were marketing themselves to the investor class, something worthy of a longer article in the future.
However, almost the entire first year, I had delivery problems. The problems were so bad, that I had about two months worth of free editions racked up because of missed delivers. After that, I let the subscription lapse. But they kept calling me back and after complaining and complaining, I re-subscribed. Thankfully, the delivery problems haven't returned.
When the subscription lapsed though, I used the online edition and whatever I could get for free online. But it wasn't the same. I couldn't watch the marketing. I couldn't check out the auction ads in the back, which lead me to learn about the housing crisis a year or so before most people knew it was going to happen. It just wasn't the same thing. I guess if I could get the entire newspaper delivered to me in PDF that would be an adequate replacement to not receiving the print edition. But the current format of most newspaper Web sites is not really a replacement for the physical newspaper, even though we all get a lot out of it.
Here's another example of the worth of the print edition of the WSJ: T. Boone Pickens, of BP Capital, has been running ads about this plan he has to convert huge sections of our electricity to wind machines built in the Southwest and save the nation. It is an ingenious plan and something I have been talking about for years. But I never would have heard about it had I not seen his ad. Days later, he was on CNBC and the financial press put together some stories about the plan, which later made the national wires. But that was days later. I got to see it right away. First. Just like everyone else who saw the ad and turned their computers on that morning to read his plan. I didn’t have to wait for the news filterers. I saw it because he was marketing the idea directly to readers of the print edition.
The same can be said for just about any newspaper. You can get a lot of information into a print ad that you can't get online. Sure, you can lead a reader to a link to a Web site. But it isn't the same as instant information to the consumer. There is also just something about having the physical newspaper in your hands. Yeah, OK, it’s romantic and all, but it’s the truth. Don't get me wrong: I love the fact that we are interactive. I love what we are doing at the company I work for and what other companies are doing. Everything is instantaneous and now. But it is not a replacement for the physical newspaper.
As far as preservation ideas, here are some right off the top of my head that might work at preserving our business model.
First, hybrids and diversification where different platforms can work together is the way to go. The FCC was right to loosen the regulations to allow daily newspapers to own radio stations. The problem is that they should have reregulated radio stations after that in order to break up the radio companies and create more competition and ownership opportunities. Right now, a lot of mom and pop radio stations have weekly shoppers or newspapers. They need the revenue from the shoppers to survive. Why can’t dailies have radio stations? As well, it is clear that in this media age, it isn’t enough to survive with just a newspaper and a Web site. People flip around. But if you can get them at every point they are flipping, you have the market. Imagine if the Globe or the Herald also owned WTKK, WRKO, or WBZ, and/or a TV station along with a print and Web presence. Think of the possibilities. A one-stop shop for advertisers and marketers, as well as news customers, with each platform helping the other get the story better, stronger, faster. It’s a no-brainer.
Second, the newspaper industry needs to build value into its print product. We need to FIGHT to preserve our print editions and do whatever we can. Because that is where we make most of our money. We shouldn’t be cannibalizing our print editions online and giving people a reason to cancel their subscriptions. At least not yet. Let’s try and drag this out as long as possible and make as much money as possible while we can. Because, and let’s be honest: Web ads are never going to be able to pay for the cost of creating most of our newspapers. When we go to Web-only, it isn’t going to be the same. There will probably be 10 percent of the employees currently working in the industry that are working in it now. So, let’s understand this and fight to preserve our platform. This starts with educating the public that it is important to set aside some time in their days to read the newspaper. The public needs to know and understand their world and community. It’s an investment in their future and their children’s future. It’s as important as an IRA. Otherwise, who is going to tell the public the stories? How are we going to find things out? We don’t know enough as it is. It’s friggin’ important. That is why I spend so much time reading newspapers before I even go into work.
When marketing the print product, it really isn't enough to say, Hey, subscribe for 50 percent off the cover price now! We should be constantly out there trying to keep the print editions alive. That seems to be the first step. What is so odd to me is that it seems as though all of the corporate people have just given up on print – or even getting as much revenue as possible from it while they can. Instead, they have us spending countless amounts of hours a week on Web stuff which brings in virtually no revenue. Granted, it is neat and a ton of fun. But if we are a “dying” industry and 90 percent of money comes from the print editions, shouldn’t we all be doing everything we can to not only make the print editions better but worth the money a customer invests in it? Why does it seem like the grunts on the ground are the only ones fighting to preserve our industry [generalizing, again, reading too much of the WSJ maybe ...]
Third and I’m not going to claim to know a ton about this because I don’t work in newspaper sales, but there clearly needs to be a better sales strategy for print editions. For example, I know of at least one daily newspaper that won’t budge on the ad rate and would prefer to have fewer pages or house ads than paid ads which are less than the standard rate. Compare that to radio stations, which fluctuate the rate based on the inventory available on a quarterly basis. If there are a ton of minutes available, there is a fire sale to fill them. There are even new companies that have emerged like Bid4Spots that put the station’s excess inventory out to vendors and have them bid on the spots. While the spots are below rate, it is still money. I know that last year Google was considering doing a similar program with display ads in the major dailies but I don’t know what came of it.
We also need a better strategy with press releases. At CNC, we are constantly hit up to put free press releases into our newspapers by public relation firms. It is unruly and unrelenting and I spend way too much time dealing with them. These companies pay the PR firms to do this instead of just buying an ad. When we say No, or put rules on how they can get in for free, they get ticky. Well, you know what? If it’s an ad, it’s an ad, and we have to eat too. There is no newspaper without the ad. One idea I had was to create some in-house PR people, to work with sales staff, to market services to companies and take away some of this PR money. Some print companies do that with special sections. But it should be expanded.
Lastly, and probably most worrisome for the corporate types, I also think the future of the news business is some sort of non-profit model similar to what NPR does only with commercial advertising. I don't know how that can be done with all the debt that has been collected from the acquisitions of this company or that. But this constant worrying about quarterlies or what Wall Street wants is killing the business. It is killing what we have to do to deliver news to the public. And therefore, it is harming the public.
As well, and I almost cringe when I say this, but maybe union folks taking 10 percent cuts at dailies in order to keep them alive isn’t such a bad thing … that is, unless the management bonuses don’t stop too. One also has to wonder how long the dailies can pay union reporters $50k to $60k to write a story a day when reporters at weeklies make half that and editors make not much more, and yet they produce more content.
In the end, the changes may come too late – when there is no daily newspaper to save.


Benedict G said...

Newspapers for years have been on a monopoly picnic, advertising driven and looked at readers as audience for advertisers. BIG MISTAKE. Now they have a genuine problem, its payback time for the readers. Newspapers are playing the great seduction game, it will now work, for they dont realise that the relationship we have with the newspaper is not functional but emotional and cereberal.
read my blog on this.

Anonymous said...

Oh Please! I worked in the newspaper industry for 22 years from 1973 to 1995. Their elitist attitude, then and now, is finally catching up with them. Readers are finding other sources of information that is more fair and balanced. They have grown weary of the political influence that newspapers have had in there community. They have become a smarter, more educated reader because they have more choices.

Advertisers are finding better and less expensive ways to distribute their message to a more targeted audience. Those days of the 5 to 10 percent ad rate increases, take it or leave it, to their best customers are over. Now they have to compete and it's clear that they haven't had to in the ways that most of us have had to.

So lets not shed a tear for an industry that only has themselves to blame for whats happened to them.

The are alot of GOOD people that I have worked with in newspapers. My hope is that they land where they want to someday.

Benedict G said...

I worked in some leading newspapers in India for 12 years. Its the same. They have scorned the reader, in one of the advertising edit interface I asked the editor his point of view of the readers and hes says " I dont care, we give them what we want and really dont care what they want"