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Summary:

There is no magic bullet that is going to “save newspapers,” and that includes using native advertising and other forms of sponsored content in the print version, despite what one publishing executive would like to think.

As the print newspaper business continues its inexorable decline, there is a frantic grasping at straws to try and forestall the inevitable, with paywalls being the most popular straw. Others have different solutions they believe will “save newspapers”: for example, Scott Karp — founder and CEO of a digital-publishing technology company called Publish2 — argues in a recent post that the use of native advertising in print could accomplish the seemingly impossible goal. Could native advertising help generate some much-needed revenue for newspapers? Sure. Will it “save” them? No.

Karp argues that just as newspapers and other publishers are experimenting with native advertising or “sponsored content” on their websites — something that everyone from The Atlantic and BuzzFeed to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are doing, as AdWeek pointed out in a recent survey of the industry — they should also be doing it in print. And he notes that some publishers, including Forbes (which has staked much of its future on native advertising) have already begun to do this.

“Native advertising could be the long hoped for bridge to a digital future for newspapers, to finally achieve the kind of premium pricing for digital advertising that they have in print, and to effectively monetizing the rapid rise of mobile news consumption. But near-term, the opportunity for newspapers with native advertising is not just digital.”

Karp’s prescription drew some anguished responses from those who are opposed to native advertising for ethical reasons, including journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, but there’s no need to rely solely on ethical arguments as a way to prevent native ads from succeeding — there are plenty of other reasons why they aren’t the secret to “saving” newspapers (it should also be noted that Publish2 sells a native-ad platform that integrates with print publishing systems, which might explain Karp’s interest in this solution).

One of the main reasons why native ads in print aren’t likely to be the salvation of newspapers is that publishers have been doing native advertising for decades. As more than one person has noted, before that term became popular, they were known as “advertorials,” and every newspaper runs them — whether they are sponsored tutorials on how to plant a garden funded by the local flower shop, or tips on maximizing your 401K plan sponsored by the local bank.

Could newspapers do a better job of offering this kind of content? Undoubtedly. And Karp is right that many publishers could benefit by helping advertisers and brands set up their own blogs or create their own content, some of which could even be hosted by the paper (some newspaper publishers have set up their own digital marketing arms to do exactly this). But is any of this ultimately going to “save newspapers?” No.

Digital First Media CEO John Paton put it well in a recent presentation for newspaper editors, in which he argued that “the past cannot buy the future” for newspapers. Whether publishers like it or not, the printed version of their content is declining in relevance, and newer digital formats are taking over. There is no magic bullet that is going to “save newspapers” — just the long, hard process of adapting their content strategies and business models to a digital age.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly

  1. Susan Borst Sunday, June 30, 2013

    Matt – “Native” formats might help with some additional revenue, but save newspapers? I”m with you and others… a resounding ‘No.” For newspapers, there is tremendous value in typical ‘brand’ messages, particularly for retail…the bread and butter of most newspaper advertising revenue. I don’t need a whole ‘feel-good’ story that my favorite store is having a sale. Just run an ad that tells me the date, time, offer and location and I might take notice. Gasp – yes, interruptive , traditional ads, traditional ‘push’ messages! (This goes for both printed and digital versions, especially local publications.) Interesting post. Thanks.

  2. The only way to save print newspapers is to create several regional editions in a larger geographic area. Each regional edition offers local news articles in “A” Section with a special features “B” section and common classified “C” section. These “B” and “C” sections are then inserted into all the regional editions “A” sections. Local business owners need to be able to advertize with inserts in quantities as few as 2,000 subscribers (6-10 routes) rather than zip code specific. Newspapers are the only medium that can successfully do this sort of geographic advertizing coverage because magazines are often national and interest specific rather than regional. Mass mailings cover everyone in a specific zip code regardless of economic status or interest (niche) and small local business owners are often excluded only because of economics. When publishers sell all of their printed newspapers to people who “want the paper” rather than give some of them away to everyone in a geographic area, they will again make money. Drive around any neighborhood and you will find that at least 20 percent of the homes never pick up those free weekly throws and probably half of the rest toss the paper without even reading it.

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