Time for Newspaper Folks to Fight Back! Here's How

Reply Thu 15 Jan, 2009 10:14 am
Time for Newspaper Folks to Fight Back! Here's How
By Donna Barrett and Randy Siegel
Published: January 14, 2009

NEW YORK (Commentary)

OK, newspaper folks. It’s time to pick ourselves off the ground and fight back. There is plenty of time left on the clock, and our fans " more than 100 million loyal readers " are pulling for us to win. So here’s how we rally.

First and foremost, we have to ignore those self-proclaimed pundits and cynics who believe that newspapers are dead. They are dead wrong.

Sure, newspaper companies face serious challenges. But we also have serious opportunities to re-engineer ourselves as quality content creators for local print and online audiences that advertisers still desire.
As we are seeing during this punishing recession, overhauling the economics of newspapering while experimenting with new business models is a daunting task, but it’s starting to happen in cities and towns all over the country, especially where executives and editors possess the requisite vision, confidence, creativity and entrepreneurial drive to succeed.

The truth is that right now every media company is hurting and under tremendous pressure to innovate and grow, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, the broadcast networks, cable giants and radio conglomerates. No one " not even MySpace, Facebook or the latest new media darling " is immune from these severe contractions in the advertising marketplace. Newspapers may publish article after article about the problems they are experiencing, but they are not suffering alone.

Fortunately, the economy eventually will improve, and businesses will start spending more, even on newspaper ads. The price of newsprint will come down. New print and online revenue models will emerge. Organizational efficiencies will help the bottom line. And well-run newspaper companies will succeed by fighting hard, experimenting and evolving while tuning out those armchair critics who revel in the thought of a society without newspapers or news.

Second, newspaper companies need to capitalize more aggressively on the valuable information that their newsrooms singularly provide their communities and our country. In these uncertain, complex times, trusted, compelling content has the potential to be more essential for readers and online users than ever.

And if you don’t believe us, ask yourself: Do most Americans still care about what goes on in their community, in their country and around the world? Is there still consumer demand for in-depth news, analysis, opinions, sports results and cultural coverage? Are the decimated TV and radio news operations in local markets really able to compete with the journalistic resources of a good newspaper? Are people looking for credible sources of news as it becomes increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction on the Internet?

In the past year, newspaper journalists have blown away their competition with critically important and defining coverage of two wars, a historic presidential election and the worst economic meltdown and financial scandals in our lifetimes. In municipalities from coast to coast, newspapers have excelled in their watchdog role as a protector of the public interest by bringing down corrupt politicians, exposing government waste and fraud, and injecting much-needed accountability in our schools and social-service agencies.

In short, quality content is still king, and newspapers own the best news-gathering operations in their individual markets. Nearly all local news originates from newspaper journalists, which remains a huge competitive advantage if utilized the right way.

Newspapers can increase their revenues and reach by investing in more content creation for different audiences, not less. The more compelling articles and information a newspaper and its website can offer, the longer readers and online users will be engaged. The longer consumers are engaged, the more exposure they will have to ads in print and online. The more attention the ads receive, the better the advertisers’ responses typically will be and the more those ads will be worth.

Bottom line: Creating a more attractive experience for newspaper and website audiences enhances advertising revenues. Conversely, cutting back too much on content while raising prices to readers and advertisers accelerates audience declines, which in turn undermine advertising revenues. It’s pretty much impossible for any business, including newspapers, to increase market share and profitability by decreasing the quality of its product and losing customers.

Third, the newspaper industry needs to reexamine how to protect and monetize its valuable print and online content. Are online aggregators plagiarizing our work and profiting mightily by selling their ads around our content without giving us a cent? Or are they driving enough traffic and revenue to our websites that we justify the risk? While Google CEO Eric Schmidt was quoted recently as saying, “All information wants to be free,” it’s clear that the issue is not so simple"especially as Google continues to sell billions of dollars a year worth of advertising around original newspaper content.

Fourth and finally, newspapers should improve the quality of their sales and marketing operations. While it’s easy to blame what ails the newspaper industry on disruptive technologies such as the Internet, newspaper companies need to revitalize their sales and marketing strategies and keep upgrading their personnel in these vital revenue-producing areas. Newspapers too often lag behind their competitors in understanding the ever-changing needs of their customers, whether they be advertisers, readers or nonreaders.

Many newspaper sales forces still are unwilling or unable to sell their value against competing media. For example, newspaper sales forces frequently struggle to extol the virtues of print advertising. In fact, print ads may be poised to see a resurgence in value in the advertising community. They aren’t skipped over by TiVos and DVRs, whose growing household penetration is destroying the television industry’s revenue model. They don’t scream at you for 20 minutes every hour like ad-saturated commercial radio. They don’t cookie you, track your keystrokes and violate your privacy while selling your personal information like many of the more manipulative Internet sites out there.

Plus, the Internet advertising world is suffering mightily from an overabundance of inventory and rapidly eroding CPMs that are dropping like a rock toward zero. Remember, the ROI and effectiveness of newspaper ads are well documented by extensive research. The value proposition is there, but it needs to be delivered to advertisers with impact and consistency.

In our rapidly changing society, newspapers, in print and online, can turn things around, reassert their relevance to readers and advertisers, and stage a comeback. It won’t be easy or for the faint-hearted. It will take a lot of hard work. Not every new idea or strategy will succeed. But it can be done as long as we don’t give up. We can’t win this tough battle if we don’t believe in our mission and in ourselves.

Donna Barrett is President and Chief Executive Officer of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI). Randy Siegel is President and Publisher of Parade Publications.
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