Been-dones and am-doings

My friend Steve Outing has what he calls a "blog rant" listing a number of ways to "save" the newspaper industry, but says, "No longer do I have much confidence that newspaper CEOs and publishers will do the right thing."

While I often share that lack of confidence and while I'm perfectly aware that there are, indeed, morons scattered throughout the hierarchies of newspaper companies, I'm struck that his to-do list includes quite a few been-dones and am-doings.

As businesses, newspapers have done a terrible job of telling their own stories, allowing those pesky reporters to paint a gloom-and-doom picture that is ill-informed and generally distorted, and the various media critics have piled on without spending enough time looking at what's already been done.

Let me give from Outing's post some specific examples of this disconnect.

Outing: "When the time comes (for many papers, it’s here now), reduce the number of days the print edition is published (keep that print insert business alive a while longer) and rely on web and mobile distribution of news and advertising the rest of the week, transitioning the print audience to the new way, including paid digital-replica editions for the older demographic that still craves the 'print experience.'"

There are quite a few cases of reduction-of-frequency with Detroit leading the way. For awhile I've been tracking them, although I've probably fallen a bit behind. Many people in the newspaper industry think it's inevitable, although some fear that a drop in frequency will break reading habits and accelerate the downfall of profitable print. Paid e-editions aren't new, either, but they're not generating significant results.

Outing: "Stop shipping newspapers long distances any day of the week and transition far-flung customers to web, e-mail, RSS, and/or mobile news versions of your news product."

Standard operational procedure. Most regional newspapers have already whacked out-of-core distribution and jacked up mail delivery prices. Cox's AJC is even killing delivery in the fairly nearby college town of Athens, Ga., which makes me happy, since my employer publishes the Athens paper.

Outing: "Stop spending money on locally producing what others do better online, thereby cutting expenses, and focus on the newspaper’s core competencies of local news coverage and community, and performing effective watchdog journalism. Do you really need a D.C. bureau? A local movie reviewer? A full-time food editor?"

Much of the newsroom layoff carnage in the last year or so has been among Washington and state capital bureaus, arts critics, food writers and the like, as well as copy editors, cartoonists and anyone else deemed not absolutely essential. Editors are desperately trying to protect the local reporting staff. Some papers are dropping wire services, or have given AP notice of intent (there's a time delay in the contract). It's been years since I met a newspaper editor who didn't completely grasp that the mission is local, local, local.

Outing: "Dump stocks pages of day-old listings, and the daily page of TV listings, and movie-time listings from the print edition. Use a small amount of space to point print readers to web and mobile versions, which might be the newspaper’s own or someone else’s."

Also standard procedure. Most American daily newspapers include little or no stock listings these days, even though cutting the listings brought a barrage of complaints from a probably small number of people who paradoxically have money but can't afford a computer.

Outing: "Turn to an agency model for advertising, selling not just into the company’s own print and digital products, but also giving advertisers one place for them to turn to get their message smartly distributed throughout the confusing digital landscape outside of the newspaper company’s product walls."

It's worth noting that newspapers have sold $50 million worth of advertising that was distributed through Yahoo's network, including both behaviorally targeted "display" ads and employment classifieds upsold to HotJobs. And of course newspapers have been creating networks for years, including Beware, though: If we can make money selling ads on other peoples' sites, why do we need to pay these guys in the newsroom?

Outing: "Accept that the web is about free and stop fighting it. (Learn from the music industry’s profound mistakes.) Develop “freemium” strategies for the web and mobile, where tiers of any particular service are offered, from free to several dollars a month; but always have a free option that offers some real value and isn’t just a ruse to get people to upgrade to paid immediately because the free version is so pathetic. "

If anybody actually listened to what Steven Brill pitched recently to the newspaper industry, that's pretty much what they would have heard. The problem is that journalism doesn't fit that "freemium" model very well. And gee, wasn't there a great wailing and gnashing of teeth when the New York Times tried to charge for access to its columnists? And didn't the numbers, not the wailing, lead to the end of that experiment? Developing strategies is easy. Successful execution is damned hard.

Outing: "Create and encourage newspaper readers and digital users to join a “membership program” with an automatic monthly or annual fee that not only gives them access to some special or premium content or services produced by the newspaper (say, personalization), but also offers a killer discount and freebies card (or mobile phone app) that leverages existing advertisers, brings them lots of new customers, and gives paying members so much value that they’d be crazy to pass on paying for a membership."

That would be pretty much what McClatchy did at the Sacramento Bee several years back. Actually, membership was bundled with the newspaper subscription. Others (including us) tried to copy it. The expenses of building and running such a system way, way, way outweigh the benefits.

Outing: "Allow various ways for readers to voluntarily support the news-gathering operation ...."

OK, that one's not being done anywhere that I know, but it's not going to work. You can't go begging for donations when you're turning 20-40 percent operating margins at some of your newspapers and the only reason you're in trouble is that you borrowed too much to fund your corporate takeovers. That just doesn't play well with the public.


Steve: My main frustration and why I felt the need to rant is, of course, the recent NAA CEOs meetings and the API report recommending a "push back the waves" approach of forcing readers to "get it" that news content has value so they "must pay for it." I still can't believe they came up with that as their main "solution" for newspapers to compete in the digital economy, where such an approach will hurt more than it helps. Look at the few newspapers that do put up web pay walls and crow about it: They're just slowing the inevitable decline in print circulation and ad revenues, and neglecting to build a digital-based business for the future. Keep some more print dollars coming in for a while longer than the papers giving it away free on the web, accept a trickle of digital revenues, and have no credible plan for when print really starts sinking for them. Oh, and blow off all the people Google, blogs, Twitter, et al could send their way. I'm not currently working for a newspaper company as you are but are on the outside. I speak to and trade e-mails with people at your (VP) level on the interactive/digital sides of newspaper companies frequently, and I hear a common refrain (always off the record, of course): We agree with you that we should execute the [fill-in-the-blank] digital strategy, but we're unable to get it approved by our publishers or CEOs. I just wonder if the digital leaders at newspapers who haven't bailed out are being too polite or respectful of their bosses and not pushing them hard enough. More likely, said bosses talk a good game (many do when they speak at digital-focused events) but remain in the grip of print-comes-first decision making and ignore the advice from the digital gurus on the floor below. There are many solutions to building revenues on the digital side, but it will take many of them together, and most importantly, it will take a decision at the top to put digital first, in the way the Christian Science Monitor has done, for example. You cited Detroit as an example of we've-already-done-that with reducing print editions. But that was just cutting back home delivery 4 days a week; the papers are still produced those 4 days but only sold in stores and news boxes. Not exactly a digital-centric strategy, but rather a let's-hope-this-work small step designed to stall layoffs and cuts. I think you underestimate the potential of the agency model. Yeah, so newspapers have had some success with selling via Yahoo!'s program: $50 million. Great, but that's scratching the surface. Why not, for example, acquire a smart digital ad agency (small enough that they'd be willing to hook up with an old-media company and apply their skills to its advertiser base) that already works with advertisers to get their messages out across the digital and mobile spectrum, and put those people to work for the newspaper's existing advertisers? Lots of businesses that still advertise in newspapers don't really understand digital, and especially not mobile, and probably can't afford to work with an ad agency that's on the digital cutting edge. Transform the newspaper's ad department so that local businesses can be taught how to create effective social media campaigns; build mini-sites or host blogs for local businesses; get targeted ads into websites of local businesses and organizations (a la Google AdSense); create mobile campaigns; etc. -- oh, and handle print too. Freemium you dismiss: Get more creative. Build news iPhone apps with levels of features that determine price. Free to read the current news; $5 to download the app that also gives access to news archives; $10 for the app that also has some amazing personalization features including aggregating customized news links to other news sources. I continue to believe that on the web, and perhaps for mobile too, news companies can charge for features and services that make the news/information reader's life easier, but not charge for news itself (as TimesSelect's op-ed columnists paid experiment showed). Membership programs: I think mobile *could* be huge for newspapers that want to survive and thrive. The (not very far off) ubiquity of smartphones combined with a membership program by a dominant news brand could be a significant revenue source for some. The NY Times is considering such a members program, and if it goes that route I bet we'll see something a helluva lot more serious and substantial than what the Sacramento Bee tried a while back. Maybe you get that $10 premium phone app for free if you agree to a $10/month membership subscription, which pays off in the way of access to premium content or services from the news company, and discounts and freebies from the newspaper's advertisers, all executed with the phone that you always carry with you and knows where you are at any moment (so it can alert you or help you find nearby members-only deals). Voluntary donations won't work, you say. To an individual newspaper, correct. I do have hope for voluntary programs that allow web or mobile users to easily support a range of websites and blogs that they like, some of which will be newspaper sites. Of course that won't save the industry, but as I said earlier, this is going to take putting a lot of creative revenue solutions together to fund a credible newsroom.

The NAA meeting perfectly illustrates my point: The newspaper industry has done an abysmal job of explaining itself and let others tell a misshapen story. And a few people in the newspaper industry, perhaps looking for scapegoats on which to pin failures of their own making, have made things worse with ill-considered rants against Google/Craigslist/the Internet and with claims that the republic will fall if those stupid readers don't pay up.

I wasn't at the meeting, but based on a briefing from someone who was, the reality at the meeting was in no way related to the hysteria on blogs and Twitter outside the meeting. Inside the meeting, Brill and Mutter presented competing visions for tools that would help newspapers experiment with mixes of free and premium content and services, and another company pitched a system that would detect unauthorized copying of news stories. Outside the meeting, the (totally unfounded) story that circulated was that evil press barons were secretly conspiring to construct a giant paywall around all newspapers and fix the price of entry.

Certainly we need clear direction from the top that makes digital media the top priority. Somehow, everyone has missed the point that those CEOs were in Chicago because they were utterly focused on digital media as the primary challenge and opportunity for the industry. They may be guilty of giving lip service or simply ignoring the Internet for years. They're not ignoring it now.

As I said, there are morons scattered throughout the hierarchies of newspaper companies, just as there are in every industry, and as a result it's not too hard to surface any number of anecdotes about moronic blockage of things that need doing.

I am reminded of a newspaper I visited a couple of years ago where the ad director asked me to speak to his entire staff about the changes in the media landscape that were reshaping the newspaper business. Ad people are usually pretty focused on one thing only: How much money can I get? The ad director had set aggressive digital sales goals, amped up digital commissions, done everything he could think to do, but the sales force just wasn't performing. After my talk I discovered in followup conversations the reason why. Deep in their hearts, the salesfolk just didn't believe that digital sales were the right thing for the company. They had been quietly disobeying out of a sense of allegiance to the company -- misplaced, of course, but genuine.

Maddening disconnects like that are everywhere, and illustrate why this is not so simple as declaring a strategic goal. Such goals have been set at company after company, and the results are just all over the map. Execution is very, very hard, and the culture of local independence and loose management that has typified newspapers through the last century doesn't help.