(Third of three parts)
Whenever I write a post suggesting things that newspapers can do to remain viable in their transition to an online-centric world, somebody pops up to say that it's pointless to give such prescriptions, because newspapers have already lost the war and there's no point in trying to save them.
And people say I'm pessimistic?
The future of the newspaper business doesn't look good, at least in the near term. As I wrote in the first part of this series, things look pretty bleak over the next few years, as newspaper companies navigate the gaping chasm between declining print revenue and the eventual rise of the online business to truly replace what's been lost in print. Moreover, as I said in the second part of this series, newspapers are making it even harder on themselves by falling behind their online competitors in the use of leading-edge technologies to attract and keep online readers. I'll say it again: In a Facebook and YouTube world, most newspaper sites look pretty stodgy.
It's not just the sites that are living in the past; so are many of the people who need to lead the industry into the future. Associated Press CEO Tom Curley nailed this very well in a recent speech: "Editors need to stop pining for the old world and intensify the leading to the new one," he said. "The first thing that has to go is the attitude. Our institutional arrogance has done more to harm us than any portal." (It's no small irony, incidentally, that the head of the once-hidebound AP is now coming off as a news business visionary. Who'd have thunk it?)
You don't have to look hard to find examples of the "attitude" problems Curley is talking about: Just last week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's short-sighted approach to handling political blogs provided yet another glaring piece of evidence that some newsroom people are trapped in the old ways and just don't get it. That's still a big problem, and it's not limited to newsroom folks—the business side of the house often isn't any better about truly understanding what needs to be done to cross the chasm.
But as badly as they're doing at transitioning into the online products and business model that is their only hope for a future, I don't think you can count newspapers out yet. They have some amazing advantages that, if properly leveraged and exploited, could make an enormous difference in how the next few years play out. Newspapers are still the No. 1 source of local news in their markets; nothing else even comes close. They have deep relationships with local advertisers that competitors would kill for. They're full of people who excel at gathering information and telling stories. They've got brand names that are solid gold in their local markets. They've got sprawling distribution networks that, arguably, are underused.
The trick is in separating those considerable assets from the industry's non-trivial liabilities, many of which are more intangible and psychological than tangible: too much attachment to old business and distribution models; increasing distance from the audience and its needs; a horrific tendency to want to control every interaction with and among readers; a constitutional aversion to change; overinvestment in capital-intensive production and distribution facilities; a lack of imagination about new ways of doing things; and an almost total failure to understand that the future is online, not in print, and to do more than pay lip service to quickly accepting and adapting to that change.
But change is what the newspaper industry must do, quickly, to avoid falling so deeply into the chasm that it can't climb out (and truth be told, some newspapers aren't going to survive this transition).
So what's the prescription for survival? Aside from shaking off all of those attitude problems, there are many things that newspapers should be doing right now, as aggressively as possible. Not all of these will work. But tiptoeing into these changes out of fear of failure will only guarantee more failure. The building is on fire; drastic measures are needed. Chances must be taken.
With all that as preamble, here's what newspapers should be doing to ensure that they make it to the other side of the chasm and successfully transition from print to online. If you're a newspaper executive or editor, consider this a call to arms—I'm talking to you:
• Think Outside the Box. I mean this as more than a cliched metaphor, though that's critical as well. The box that newspapers should be thinking outside is the computer screen that's got a Web site with the newspaper pasted onto it. Newspapers should be boldly experimenting with distribution via Facebook widgets, RSS, mobile phones, Twitter, social bookmark sites and anything else they can find. Your core competence is reporting the news; distribution on paper is just one option. You should be getting your content out to audiences as many ways as you can. Don't just be prolific—be promiscuous.
• Engage Your Audience. Newspapers are discovering, sometimes to their horror, that their audience has something to say—and wants to say it. Don't fight this—embrace it. Celebrate it. Newspapers have historically been pillars of their community; now, they can be the gathering place for the community. Enlist them in your reporting, aka crowdsourcing.Provide readers as many tools and venues as you can to communicate with you and, especially, amongst themselves (and for God's sake, don't be afraid of what they'll say!). Know that a lot of upstart companies and technologies are targeting precisely this niche of becoming the ultimate social community bulletin board. To maintain your historic position, you need to beat them to it.
• Don't Just Create Content—Aggregate It. Dive into the blogosphere and the worlds of Yahoo groups, social networks and listservs and you'll discover that you're hardly alone anymore in covering what's going on around you. Not by a long shot. In fact, passionate bloggers and online conversationalists are covering your local market and topics better than the newspaper could ever hope to (especially in a time of shrinking newsrooms). Example: If you've got a professional or major college sports team in your town, it's a mortal lock that there are a host of blogs devoted to passionately dissecting everything that team does, in far more detail than your beat writer or columnists ever could. What to do? Bring them into the tent! Harness that passion. Make your sites the central point for the aggregation of the best local writing from all of these amateur sources. Blend it--properly identified--with your professional journalism. And then sell advertising against it, perhaps sharing some of the proceeds with the bloggers.
• Embrace the Competition. While you're gathering outside content, knock down that old brick wall that separates you from your print and broadcast competitors and aggregate their content, as well. Result: Readers will come to see you as the place to go to find out everything that's going on around town, from any source. Fighting competitors tooth and nail, to the point of ignoring what they do if you don't do it first? Outdated thinking. Linking to competitors? Heresy. Being the No. 1 information source in town? Priceless. And Profitable.
• Get Local. Very Local. Hyperlocal. Under attack from all sides, newspapers have one absolutely defensible franchise: local coverage. National news, international news, classifieds—they're all being done better elsewhere. But local news, information and advertising are what makes newspapers unique. Focus on that, preferably to the exclusion of most anything else. That's what your readers really care about—and they can't get it elsewhere. (Yet.) And be sure to involve the readers in the coverage—user-generated content is what makes a hyperlocal strategy work. They know more about what's going on in their neighborhoods than your reporters ever can. Take advantage of that knowledge and create ways for the readers to share what they know about what's going on around them.
• Stop Covering the World. This is the flip side of Get Local. There is absolutely zero reason, in this day and age, why any newspaper—except a handful of national papers—should be devoting any resources to national or international news or generic entertainment coverage, especially online. There are just too many other places to get it. (Exception: Uniquely relevant content—and that's very rare.) Get over the egomaniacal conceit that your editors have a unique take on the presentation of national or international wire copy, or that you have to be "of record" for your readers on news from around the world. Those days are over. Instead, use your ever-tightening resources—plus contributions from the audience—to concentrate on covering your local market to the nth degree. You should be looking ruthlessly at everything in the paper and throwing over the side anything that doesn't support the local focus. Zero-base your news operation.
• Let Your Stars Shine. That columnist, critic or beat reporter you see as a rumpled hack (or more, hopefully) may be a celebrity to his or her readers. Take advantage of that. Build communities around core newsroom beats and columns—the restaurant critic, the city hall reporter, the sports columnist. Think of them as the community's guide, or host. Augment their reporting and writing with user comments and conversations, online discussions, regular blogging, podcasts, video, etc. This binds your content even more closely to your readers and creates strong franchises in particular subjects. And the writers will find that the feedback from their fans in the audience even makes the journalism better.
• Video: It's Not Just for TV Stations Anymore. Video on the Web is exploding; the cost of producing video is plummeting. Coincidence? I think not. With the proliferation of broadband access and cheap, easy tools, video is becoming as important to the Web as text—and even more so to younger audience members that have always proven so elusive. Newspaper sites should be aggressively adding video every which way they can—coverage of news events, interviews with newsmakers, talking-head videos by columnists and reporters. It doesn't have to be network quality; a little effort goes a long way. Everyone on your staff should be video-savvy. Former Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll once half-jokingly proposed giving all of his reporters "helmet cams." A few years later, that actually looks like a pretty good idea.
• Use the Technology. Not just on your site; use it yourself! Everybody thinking about the future of newspapers should be on Facebook, spending time with YouTube, trying Twitter, getting information via mobile phone, etc. In talking to newspaper people about change, it's always disturbing to discover how many people don't actually use the latest technologies themselves. Nobody looks dumber than an executive talking about building Facebook widgets who clearly isn't even a member of Facebook.
• Dig Into the Data Mines. An increasing amount of public information is online in the form of data. This ranges from crime reports to economic data to event calendars. Find ways to mine this data and create new, interesting forms of journalism (hint: plot it on a map). These sorts of data mashups are appearing all over the Web, but rarely on newspaper sites. Don't be left behind. And data-mining isn't just for the editorial side. Your paper owns amazing information on subscribers and advertisers. Within the bounds of propriety and privacy, find new ways to take advantage of it.
• Put Your Sales Force to Work. Yes, they already work hard—hopefully. But you can give them even more to do. Your feet on the street in the local market are an amazing asset that a lot of other companies would love to have. Put those two notions together: Your sales reps could be using their relationships with local advertisers to also sell ads for Google, Yahoo, Yellow Page companies and others that want in on the local market. Are these competitors? Yes. Wouldn't you like a piece of their business and a chance to keep tabs on them? You should. Otherwise, they're just going to come into your market anyway, if they're not already there. Might as well take a cut.
• Educate Advertisers. As slow as newspapers have been to fully embrace the Web and other online media, advertisers have been worse—especially local advertisers. Help your advertisers understand how the Web can help them promote and grow their businesses. Give them better tools to reach consumers. Don't just take orders—evangelize. Will this shift advertisers from print to online? Of course. But you're going to get cannibalized anyway. Better you should cannibalize your own business.
• Ready, Aim, Fire. That's the new advertising paradigm. In the old model, you could fire without aiming, knowing that your audience was a broad enough target that any given ad plastered across the newspaper would be relevant to some reader or another. No more. The golden age of mass advertising is over. The future is targeted, delivering specific customers to specific advertisers. That's a major change in thinking, but that's what the new technology allows and encourages. Mass-market advertising was an inefficient gravy train. Targeted advertising is far more efficient—and should be just as profitable, if not more so.
• Stop Pasting Display Ads Onto the Screen (Or Worse, Popping Them Up). Just because display ads were the lifeblood of the print business for a century doesn't mean they work online. Banners, skyscrapers, etc.—those are print forms adapted to the Web. Do you ever actually click one? Do you think your customers do? Look for other forms: Video ads, interactive ads, embedded links, contextual advertising, search-based advertising, ads on RSS feeds and mobile devices. Google, by the way, is already doing all of this. Seen its market value lately? Yep, bigger than all the U.S. media companies combined. Maybe there's something to these newfangled forms of advertising!
• Explore New Revenue Streams. Circulation revenue aside, what percentage of newspaper revenue comes from advertising? All of it! Broaden your horizons. Find other ways to help your advertisers do business besides selling them ads. Can you create directories around local businesses? Can you help them with business administrative tasks like database management, resume review and collation, or tracking their customers? Can you hire out your distribution trucks to help them make deliveries? Use some imagination and see how you can increase your value to your local business customers.
• Experiment and Innovate As If Your Life Depended on It. Because it does. There are too many newspapers that still think of their Web site as something of a novelty, stuck in a room down the hall and populated by castoffs and kids. That's just wrong. Your online operation is the future of the business, and it needs significant investment, attention and top-of-mind prioritization in every aspect of planning and operations. And that's not all. Newspapers should be placing bets on all sorts of innovative products, on and offline. Reach out to audiences any way you can. You have no idea what will work. But you know what doesn't work: Doing nothing, aka what you're doing now. You should be encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in every corner of your operation. The industry's poster child for this is the Bakersfield Californian, which has thriving hyperlocal, social network, magazine-publishing, entertainment, classifieds and who-knows-what-else experiments going. Superb work. Unfortunately, I'm hard-pressed to think of any other newspaper organization that comes close to that level and variety of innovation.
• Kill the Print Edition. Seriously. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not next week. Maybe not next year. But you should be looking very hard at how the existing product and business model are sustaining themselves and be prepared to make a hard choice sooner rather than later. Yes, it's still a cash cow. But it's expensive to produce and distribute, advertising and circulation are declining, and its audience is aging literally to death. Hang on too long and you risk bankruptcy—and you may never make it to the other side of the chasm.
• Get Some Guts. Change is messy. Change is scary. You've got to have guts to initiate and go through with the kinds of changes that are necessary to get to the other side of the chasm. This industry has suffered too long from editors and business executives who are timid and afraid of offending anybody. That's no longer an option. The things that need to be done are not safe, they're not easy, and they're going to move a lot of people out of their comfort zones. Deal with it—it's better than unemployment.
I'll say it again: Some people, and some newspapers, and some newspaper companies, aren't going to make it to the other side of the chasm between print and online. Remember the old first-year law school gimmick that goes, "Look to your left. Look to your right. One of the three of you isn't going to make it"? Well, that's how it is in the newspaper industry right now. Survival—and success—will go to the bold, the courageous, the innovative. All others need not apply. This is a gut check. Before you head across the chasm, make sure you and your organization have what it takes to make the transition.
Incidentally, a year ago I wrote a similarly detailed prescription post—and a year later not much has changed in the way newspapers are operated (I mean fundamental change, not random cost-cutting, which is arguably doing more damage than it's preventing). Meanwhile, the newspaper business continues to spiral downward. What does it take to get managements to make the aggressive, innovative moves needed to survive?
Or, as Tom Curley said: "We—the news industry—have come to that fork in the road. We must take bold, decisive steps to secure the audiences and funding to support journalism’s essential role in both our economy and democracy, or find ourselves on an ugly path to obscurity."
Exactly. Now get to work!