"The report of my death was an exaggeration”- Mark Twain
As someone with 26 years of local media experience in newspapers and TV, I’ve witnessed several trends affect the economic and cultural viability of newspapers-
Traditional Ad Revenues through Local Aggregation
Certainly Craigslist and eBay decimated most personal classifieds. But, newspapers can improve their niche in providing vetted ads and aggregating opportunities for real estate and group or garage sales.
Newspapers must further embrace their inherent strength of gathering timely local information and repackage it in a way that meets the needs of their audience. By branching out into online mapping and archiving hyper-local knowledge, newspapers can once again be a unique advertising source. It may never match what it was, but it will put them on a path toward digital relevance.
Other niche sites such as Yelp!, Urban Spoon, Groupon are beginning to carve their way into an area that can still be best served by newspapers’ “feet on the street”. The key for print is to distance itself from their limitations in physical delivery and exploit the timeliness and improved accuracy of online targeting.
The Ubiquity of Written News
News aggregators like Google and Yahoo have not helped either, capturing and making money from newspapers’ local content. Newspapers have become increasingly reliant on search engines to attract a third to half of their online audience- a symbiotic relationship that is now similar to the tiny birds that clean a hippo’s teeth. Because of scale, Google gets the spoils and local press the scraps. Consequently, younger news readers see no need for a newspaper’s written delivery of national and world news.
Printed news was the easiest to deliver online during narrow bandwidth days. This is why newspapers were the first to be impacted by the Internet. Now, affordable bandwidth speed brings a proliferation of digital video content delivery. However, broadcast TV stations were able to adapt quicker to the trend, as their content was always free and sponsored. Still, they need to be diligent in protecting usage rights from potential repurposing by others.
Search engine traffic benefits TV more than newspaper. Video is more engaging, plus provides monetization through pre-roll ads and banner sponsorships. Video tagged properly, is also incredibly SEO-friendly. Newspapers need to learn to use video, even if they have a way to go in professional editing and story-telling technique.
The Shifts in Local Retailing
Corporate mergers, megamalls and category-killing, box stores decimated the ‘mom & pops’ and small chains in local markets. These businesses were traditionally a newspaper’s bread and butter through the 80’s. Mega-mergers and Superstores gave rise to hardball negotiations from companies and rep firms. The same firms that used to represent the papers now seek to squeeze pennies for the megastores’ shareholders. As newspapers’ share of audience and traditional local ads dwindle, they are also losing the fight for major advertisers’ budgets. Advertisers increasingly want to efficiently buy the DMA, not it’s separate suburbs. Online ad networks allow them to do both.
Newspapers are traditionally poor negotiators. Not their fault entirely, as they were so reliant on earned rates traditionally. They still deliver to a valuable mass audience during a time of explosive fragmentation and disintermediation. Combine their print and online audience and you can deliver great reach and frequency. They just need to learn from broadcast on how to get value for each audience. The riches are in niches. One size does not fit all.
The Restraints of the “Core”
Newspapers’ traditional barrier to competitive entry has become their barrier to exit. Gigantic presses and reliable daily delivery force still provide profit, if far less. In the 90’s, newspapers were afraid their web site would cannibalize their paid subscribers, so they didn’t want to be too good at digital.
Newspapers also wanted way too much for any online paywall at first; and could not band together for a reasonable pricing model. Entering the 2000’s, they saw an onslaught of search engine frenemies ransacking their regurgitated print news and niche sites carve up lucrative verticals such as automotive, real estate and local classified ads. Still, they held steadfastly to their rate cards and hesitated to take necessary steps to digital reinvention.
You never hear TV news talk about the impact of Hulu, Netflix, DVR’s, YouTube or podcasts on their audiences. Yet newspapers themselves trumpet their woes within their own pages. You are seeing TV challenges, to a degree, in the agency scrutiny of Costs Per Point and Reach/Frequency delivery of entertainment programming. Time spent with TV continues to increase as technology makes it more accessible. Sure, local broadcast TV and radio will be impacted by digital media in the next decade. As it stands today, local TV is poised to remain the primary local news source.
For some time, more people get local news from television than the newspaper or radio. Vast improvements in reporting technology and the trend of sharing footage have only accelerated TV’s lock on local news profitability. TV also does a masterful job referring their audience to their web sites. For print, it is largely an afterthought. And when they do, it tends to be for archival print stories instead of additional digital content. Television leverages audience participation, featuring viewer contributions of photos and videos within their broadcasts. Traditional newspaper editors shun such content.
What Can Papers Do?
Still, the demise of newspapers are overstated; just as the death of radio was forecasted upon the birth of TV and the VCR was predicted to be a commercial killer. Ultimately, traditional media platforms all need to continue evolving and increase their daily value- no matter the device our content is delivered through. The Comcast/NBC merger will likely be the first of many, as our viewing experience will forever change with bandwidth portability.
Newspapers need to aggregate information beyond the story and refer the audience to it frequently. They should lead with their strengths of knowing the neighborhoods, schools, crime statistics and in-depth analysis of trends that affect their readers. Become media companies dedicated to context as well as content. Break through the traditional boundaries of your sections and develop audience segments that provide desirable targets such as Parenting, Health, Personal Finance and Community Involvement. Encourage feedback and public submissions to increase engagement. Take a chance and shoot some video and then pull stills from the footage if necessary.
The public may just embrace you if they see you trying.