I was having coffee the other day with my friend Tim Loughran, general manager of Centro de Richmond, a Spanish-language weekly produced by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The topic was how newspapers will survive and thrive during a time which does not seem to favor them. That same day I noticed Jon Newman’s piece on the future of newspapers. All of this got me thinking, “what is the future of newspapers?”
As you’ve probably noticed, newspapers and their holding companies are struggling to ride out the current economic storm and some have resorted to filing bankruptcy to stay afloat while others are shutting down completely. I’ll blame the economy as the primary culprit for the current situation, but it’s no secret that newspapers were struggling before the current downturn. In fact, they have been thrashing around for more than a decade trying to find a profitable business model in the digital age. So far they have failed to find one.
Newspapers are frequently their own worst enemy. I have a journalism degree and I’m aware of the struggle between those on the publishing side who are trying to pay the bills and those on the journalism side who constantly worry about the Chinese Wall dividing publishing and editorial. Perhaps this is a valid struggle, but if the newspaper shuts down in the middle of the struggle, who wins? Certainly not the readers. In this environment, the journalists and the publishers need to finally come together.
But that’s a relatively small thing compared to this: When newspapers began publishing digital editions online and (for the most part) giving their content away for free, they sent a strong message to their customers that will be extremely difficult to take back. Here’s the message: “The price paid for subscriptions and newsstand copies are to cover the cost of the newsprint and the distribution. The content itself does not have any value and that’s why we’re giving it away it for free online.” I’m sure this is the last thing newspapers wanted to communicate, but that’s in fact what has happened. It may be possible to stuff that cat back in the bag, but it’s gonna be tough.
Newspapers are “media” companies, but you wouldn’t know it. Newspaper philosophy works like this: Hire some reporters and editors and have them develop some content. Hire some ad sales peoples and have them sell some ads. Combine the editorial and the advertising (separately of course) into one nice looking publication and deliver it. Do it again tomorrow. Maybe it’s those daily deadlines that have blinded newspapers to the reality that every media company must know: The number one job of newspapers is to connect people to the world around them. Newspapers connect readers to their community and they connect advertisers to their customers. The better newspapers understand this, the more successful they will be. Newspapers are not the only ones guilty of not understanding their business . Ad agencies often think their job is to create memorable ads and PR agencies may think their job is to crank out pithy press releases. In fact, their job is also to connect people.
Unfortunately, newspapers have completely missed the boat when it comes to utilizing technology to connect people. Bloggers, social media and niche media have steadily siphoned off consumers and advertising revenue in a game that newspapers were well poised to win. That’s because “new media” understands what “old media” seems blind to. Connecting people is where the real value is derived.
Here’s what newspapers need to do to survive.
1. Jump on the social media bandwagon. Newspapers are the medium best positioned to connect people who are interested in similar topics. Social media “microsites” for local communities, for business, for sports, for real estate, etc. will help build the newspaper’s brand while establishing a sense of community among its readers. Advertisers will surely follow.
2. Embrace the bloggers. Bloggers know that their post is only half of what interests readers. Reader comments are the other half. Newspapers still don’t understand this and relegate comments to micro-print at the bottom of an online story if they allow comments at all. Comments and feedback are valuable content. Why not highlight excellent comments by dragging them into the body of the story instead of relegating them to no-man’s-land? Why not enlist well known bloggers to lead the discussion? The fact that readers care enough to comment should be welcomed and celebrated and will help keep interest in the story going long after it’s publication.
3. The 24-7 news cycle is killing newspapers. If you know the newspaper business, you know never to pitch a story to a newspaper reporter after about 3pm, because they are often on deadline for the next day’s edition. Reporters filed once a day and that was it. That’s changing quickly as online editions try to keep up with breaking news, but it’s still deeply ingrained into the business. Reporters need to report the news faster and worry less about the polish. Newspapers need to deliver the news faster in non-traditional ways.
Speaking of non-traditional delivery of the news, here are some suggestions.
4. Twitter: Many traditional media outlets are now using twitter to promote stories that have already been written, but they need to use it to deliver the news as it happens in real time. Forget the links, just send out the tweets until the story has been written, then link to it.
5. Mobile devices: The fact that Hearst is launching a wireless e-reader hints that they don’t “get it.” I can read the news on my iPhone just fine, thank you. Give me an app fine-tuned for your publication and I will download it and even pay for it if it’s a good one. Create mobile websites for your advertisers so the content can be linked to the advertising. Utilize text messaging to deliver editorial and advertising content to readers who are accessing your content on any platform.
6. Audio: Every news story of substance should be bundled with advertising into an audio file for download onto an MP3 player for listening in the car or anywhere else. Webacasters are already creating content for niche audiences that are available live on their websites or can be downloaded for later listening.
But besides content delivery, this is what’s most obvious and most lacking among newspapers.
7. Newspapers need to become a marketing partner. For many local businesses, newspapers may be their only advertising vehicle. But few newspapers do more than just take ad orders. Newspapers should be helping their advertisers by hunting for new ways to drive those customer relationships. Why not offer a free “marketing audit” to make sure Joe’s Lamp Shop is following marketing’s best practices? Why not offer seminars to businesses on social media, mobile marketing and all the other ways they can drum up business. And have a product to offer in these areas. Newspapers have a special and unique relationship with their customers which they must exploit.
Newspapers are the king of content. They need to be the king of all media too if they are going to survive and flourish.