It is clear that newspapers across the country are in the midst of a crisis. Dozens have closed in the past two years, including some large, metropolitan dailies like the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Cincinnati Post and Tucson Citizen. Others have threatened to close, sought bankruptcy protection, merged, or moved to partial week publication. A few have decided to cease print operations and serve their news only online. As a Time journalist eloquently said, it is “as if some creeping, flesh-eating virus had got hold of the newspaper industry.”
Causes of the Crisis
While the current crisis is clearly influenced by the rise of the Internet as a source of news, a decline in circulation, and a collapse of display and classified advertising, it is actually not an entirely new problem. In fact, newspapers have been experiencing a decline in total circulation for the past 30 years. And newspapers don’t have a good track record of adapting to technology, as evidenced by the press-radio war of the 1930s when print media attempted to limit radio’s access to news.
In addition, newspapers have not yet adapted to changing audience preferences. Walter Pincus (in Columbia Journalism Review) has pointed out that newspapers have squandered resources “that could have been used to give readers a wider selection of stories about what was going on and that may have directly affected their lives.” In the Internet world, this is called “content is king.” In other words, “any media venture is likely to fail through lack of appealing content, regardless of other design factors” (Wikipedia entry).
Many Solutions Silly
A number of solutions have been proposed to address the current newspaper crisis. Unfortunately, most do not make a lot of sense.
Publication cutbacks – Nearly a hundred papers are scaling back the number of days in which they print a newspaper (list of newspapers that have cut publication days). Saturdays and Mondays are the most frequent victims of these cutbacks, although many cuts are even more severe. Other newspapers, such as the Detroit Free Press are still printing weekday editions, but cutting back on home delivery days. Such an approach is expected to help the Free Press save 20 percent of its costs, according to an AP report, while hopefully maintaining most of its advertisers who already prefer other publication days.
Yet, there seems a danger in customers forgetting about you if your contact with them is not on a regular, consistent weekday basis. It’s one thing if a newspaper is weekly and I expect it on Wednesdays, but it’s another thing if it only comes out on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays while my weekday patterns of life run Monday through Friday.
Content payment or subscription changes – Rupert Murdoch has recently suggested that an newspapers are going to need to seriously reconsider the need to charge for online news content, something few papers except the Wall Street Journal currently do. Similarly, Walter Isaacson (in Time Magazine) has called for movement toward a subscriber micropayment system that incorporates ease-of-use features like iTunes or PayPal. But both approaches seem to be looking backward and akin to closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. It is also worth noting that subscription fees for newspapers generally only covered the cost of newsprint and have never been a key driver of revenue.
In contrast, Merlin Mann and John Gruber (at SxSW 2009) have explained why giving away content often makes good sense for bloggers, often in unexpected ways. It seems a similar logic could apply to newspapers’ online efforts, given sufficient time to discover new, perhaps unforeseen revenue options. Admittedly, much of the time for such discovery has already been squandered.
Non-profit status – Senator Benjamin Cardin (D, MD) has introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act into the U.S. Senate that would allow newspapers to become non-profit “educational” organizations. The arrangement would be similar to public television and prohibit papers from making endorsements. Advertising and subscriptions would be tax exempt instead of unrelated business income, as is typically the case with nonprofit organizations.
Overall, this concept seems to be an overreaction which bends the typical understanding of a non-profit, with little historical precedence. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge that newspapers are still, by and large, profitable enterprises. In a less radical approach, Gov. Gregoire of Washington State has provided special tax breaks to his state’s ailing newspapers through 2015. Yet both these approaches follow a bail-out mentality rather than a path that would help newspapers adapt to changes in the environment.
Online-only approaches – A smaller group of newspapers has taken the drastic step of moving to becoming online-only publications. The Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Ann Arbor News are notable examples. While a bold step into the brave new world, online advertising may not yet be mature enough to support these ventures.
Others have also expressed skepticism. Walter Pincus (CJR) has stated that “serious people have proposed what in time will be considered absurd ideas – turn papers into nonprofit organizations; charge for each downloaded story; turn into Web-based publication; make Web aggregators, such as Google and Yahoo, pay for carrying newspaper stories.” With the possible exception of becoming online-only publications, these proposals generally seek easy solutions. Unfortunately, this is typically not the way most challenges are overcome.
The Need for Reinvention
There is no doubt that newspapers need to reinvent themselves, although how best to bridge from the past to the future is not entirely clear. The rational answer likely involves strategic creativity and risk taking, such as the effort that created USA Today some 25 years ago.
To that end, it seems clear that newspapers need to make a paradigm shift from printers of news to conveyers of information, at least for those that have not already recognized that further integration with the Internet is essential to survival. Hard work and technical savvy will also be prerequisites, but there will likely be no “easy” way out for newspapers.
Here are 12 practical yet strategic steps newspapers might take in pursuit of such a transformation:
1. Webize the Newspaper Name
Most newspapers have figured out the importance of having the Web address displayed on their pages, and even on the sacred home page. These web address also generally match the newspaper’s name (although surprisingly, some don’t). But the time has come for total commitment between print and online presence. At a minimum, the URL for the newspaper’s online presence should be the largest, boldest item in the masthead after the paper’s name. For maximum effect, the URL should become the paper’s name. So instead of Smithville Daily News, the masthead reads in big, bold type “SmithvilleNews.com.”
2. Print Content Should Always Jump to the Web
We propose at least 80 percent of articles in the printed version of a newspaper should end with a URL. Not just a listing the newspaper’s Web address, but providing a relevant call to action with as numeric details where feasible to add specificity:
- Comment on the School Board’s actions at smithvillenews.com/090423school
- View school auditor’s report at smithvillenews.com/090423schoolaudit
- View video from Sewer Committee consultant at smithvillenews.com/stinky-sewers-cause-complaints
- View and purchase any of 50 photos from Raiders vs Chemics game at smithvillenews/sports
- Post your opinion on Snodgrass Industry’s Plant Closing on our blog at smithvillenews.com/blog.
- Read the remainder of reporter Jill Schatinger’s story online at smithvillenews.com/pageone (5 paragraphs, 3 charts)
Conversely, online news must also find ways of cross-selling print editions where and when feasible.
3. Flip the Editorial Page
Instead of letters to the editors printed in the newspaper, the editorial pages should print the best of the previous day’s reader’s comments on stories or editorial postings, as reviewed by the editorial editor. Or perhaps the editor would sort out excerpts from posts into pro and con columns (but without the shouting as one gets on cable television shows).
Another possible approach might be for the editorial staff to interject their commentary into the stream of the conversation as it is reprinted from the web, rather than exclusively in a separate column at the top of the page. The editorial page could become a section that reports on editorial opinion, categorizing, analyzing refuting or supporting points of view in chunks (each attributed back to the poster’s username), rather than the traditional display of letters to the editor.
4. Recapture the Classifieds
The rise of Craig’s List, eBay, eBay Motors , Monster.com, and other such sites have marginalized the value of traditional classified advertising. The resulting collapse of classified advertising has been cited as one of the key factors in the financial difficulties faced by both the San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe.
Newspaper chains or an industry sponsored consortium should use their resources and national presence to identify ways to compete, partner or buyout significant players in what may be understood as the micro-advertising marketplace. A process is needed where individuals or businesses could post short, text-based ads or modular display ads through the local newspaper’s web interface. These ads would then be populated to the newspaper’s local or national partner web sites, e-mail newsletters, print editions, and perhaps even traditional online text ad services like Google’s Adwords and Overture, or social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.
This new genre of classified ads could also appear next to relevant content in print (not just in the back of the paper where nobody looks), as identified through keyword tagging in the ads and some sort of algorithm that understands the topic of the news article. Such an approach could bring new value to the otherwise exhausted classified concept, especially if space were devoted to explaining the easy steps for advertising and reporting the individual, local success stories.
5. Kill Impression-based Advertising and Embrace PPC
While print ad placements may still need to be sold on a traditional basis, newspapers should shift their online advertising strategies from the old paradigm of pay per impression to the more modern pay per click model. This may cause the demise of most banner ads, and we’ll all be glad to see them go. The pricing model is likely one of the few reasons such ads persist in the face of low click through rates and research showing widespread banner blindness.
A move to a PPC model for online display ads will also require a fundamental shift in advertising philosophy. Advertisers will have to think and work harder to get their message across. They will need to be more relevant to the consumer and partner with newspapers to find ways to tie their ads to relevant content through keywords – without destroying the editorial-advertising divide. Finally, advertisers and newspapers will need to find ways to provide value to the reader to earn their clicks, which in the end is a win-win for newspaper and reader alike. More informational, emotional and visual online advertising will likely result.
A PPC advertising model may initially result in lower income, but there should also be potential for increased volume due to this approach lowering the bar for smaller businesses to confidently enter the online advertising arena. Such democratization of advertising will likely have the added benefit of creating new, secondary industries focused on analytical services and tools.
6. Customize Content Delivery
StumbleUpon.com is a potential model for delivering news that is of the most interest to each individual newspaper subscriber. This customized content could be delivered through an e-mail newsletter format, or to a wireless, web-enabled book reading device. In fact, newspapers should be running, not walking, to the Kindle and Sony Reader Digital Book platforms.
In this approach to customized content delivery, the subscriber would give initial input about their areas of interest such as one does on StumbleUpon, which would be combined with the subscriber’s demographic information and content analysis algorithms that “learn” what the subscriber is most interested in through how they rate items positively or negatively through thumbs up or down icons, or through their click behavior.
7. Report on Online Activity
Newspapers could do a better job of reporting on what is happening on Internet in their print editions. By this we don’t mean more techie stories, but some type of summary display that gives the pulse of news or other online activities. For example, BuzzFeed covers memes and the viral Internet, Google zeitgeist reports search trends, and there are a number of tools that help track trends on Twitter. A good place to start would be reporting yesterday’s most popular activity on the newspaper’s Web site: what are people searching for, what topics received the most comments or blog posts, which advertisers are receiving the most clicks. A daily or weekly, data-driven content analysis of media coverage –newspaper, radio, Internet, cable and network – could create a new position for newspapers as the rational, data-driven analysts of current events and opinions (i.e. – database journalism).
8. Make Newspapers Clickable
Alltop.com aggregates news stories in categories (and by source) and displays the results as clickable headlines. The whole page is filled with clickable headlines. This concentrated approach to news is like a newspaper with hundreds of sections, quickly scanable, and more appealing than an RSS feed reader. If newspapers were clickable, this would be an appealing format to make papers more valuable. QR Codes have the potential to make newspapers clickable.
QR codes are two dimensional bar codes that are already popular in Japan. There you can take a camera phone photograph of such a code – on a handout, a mailer or even a billboard – and be transferred to a corresponding Web site on your web-enabled cell phone. Thus either camera phones or some new type of pen-like input device could be used as a bridge between printed headlines accompanied by such a code and Web-based reading devices like a tablet PC, e-book reader, iPhone, or a customized e-mail newsletter.
Interactivity is one of two attributes that newspapers currently lack, according to Andrew Davis, President of the American Press Institute (see Time Forum). The newspaper industry should aggressively pursue the implementation of QR codes and related technology which have the potential to make the printed word interactive.
9. Become the Celebration
Births, engagements, weddings, anniversaries and deaths are a significant part of local newspaper coverage. A few national Web sites like our365.com (for births) and legacy.com (for obituaries) are in this market space, but it seems there is a opportunity for a newspaper chain or consortium to develop an innovative Web concept that combines aspects of photo sharing, local directories, retail sponsorship and sales.
Of course, an online version of newspapers’ social pages sounds a lot like Facebook, which has itself been struggling to find a sustainable advertising model. This suggests that there may be an opportunity for collaboration where newspapers become the local on-ramp for social news and in turn funnel local, targeted and relevant advertising from small businesses back to Facebook or similar sites. In this way newspapers would become the intermediary between highly personalized online and local advertising revenue opportunities.
In a similar way, concerts, plays, lectures and sporting events also get hometown press attention. Eventful.com and Ticketmaster are key online players in this market space. While some newspapers are “reverse publishing” event calendars from their websites in weekend media & event-focused print editions (Example: Bay City Times’s Let’s Go Section discussed at :33), a better option is likely to find a way to partner with Web ventures that already have a wide national presence, commenting or voting capabilities, social networking aspects, and other linkages that already give it high value in the eyes of the consumer. For example, it might be possible to publish print listings of eventful.com events and collect a fee from that website for measurable increases in web traffic or ticket sales that can be attributed back to the newspaper promotion. Today’s Internet-based economies will require newspaper’s acceptance of less control over the means of production and more innovative collaboration.
Such an approach to event publishing could also overcome a common reader complaint: that newspapers cover interesting events after the fact, but don’t do a good job of advance notice of community activities, presumably because they consider pre-event publicity “advertising,” not news.
10. Consider Hyperlocalization
Hyperlocalization is the concept of focusing on community news. While the Web is outstanding for delivering national and international news and information, it still can’t compete with newspapers for breadth and depth of local coverage (see PBS Frontline: “Should newspapers go hyperlocal?”). Unfortunately, some early examples of hyperlocal approaches such as backfence.com and LoudounExtra.com have been less than successful. Nevertheless, the strategy may yet have merit if and when the correct formula is applied.
Ethnic newspapers are another example of focusing on an audience subsegment. While not unaffected by the recession, many ethnic newspapers are growing (example: El Diario La Prensa), and such papers are surprisingly popular (NYT article), making them worthy of further study by an industry that needs to better focus on their readers.
11. Partner (or Compete) with the Post Office
Newspapers are unique in that they operate a home delivery network. While the United States Postal Service has exclusive legal rights to deliver first and third-class mail, newspapers have a potential opportunity to provide an alternative way for advertisers to reach their target audiences. Furthermore, lobbying for readjustment of the changes made to the second class postage rate structure in 2007, which favored media conglomerates over smaller publications, could help papers take further advantage of postal delivery options.
12. Take a Contrarian Position
If all else fails (or even if it doesn’t), newspapers could consider a “Good News Page,” that compiles user-submitted, positive stories from around town for exclusive publication in their print editions. Of course the axiom is that “Bad News Sells” (Pew Research supporting this), but perhaps it is time for print media to find a way to establish a unique, contrarian media position that could attract hometown advertisers interested in good public relations as well as an audience of eyeballs who would appreciate this material in an otherwise discouraging world of news.
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The crisis faced by newspapers across the country should be of concern to all marketers since printed newspapers and their accompanying Web sites are still valuable vehicles needed to effectively reach the marketer’s target audiences. Furthermore, marketers within the newspaper industry have a role to play in helping reinvent newspapers for the future – a role that will serve their own careers as well as helping shape the newspaper industry for decades to come.
Additional and Related Links
- America’s Press-Radio War of the 1930s: A Case Study in Battles between Old and New Media (PDF)
- Motown Madness: Home Delivery Cut – Why Detroit Newspapers’ Approach Will Fail
- Washington State Papers Paid Dearly for Tax Cut Estimated to Save Only 15 Reporters’ Jobs
- Guy Kawasaki (co-founder of Alltop.com) on Obstacles to Innovation (Kawaski on Twitter)
- BBC Report on QR Codes (video)
- Newspaper Death Watch blog
- Journalist Jeff Jarvis on the Future of Newspapers (video) (bio & blog)
- How Newspapers & Magazines Can Benefit from 2D-codes like QR-Code, BeeTagg Code and Datamatrix (video) (Swedish)
- Maybe Google Needs Newspapers
- Make Your Own Newspaper Circulation Trend Gauge