Don't Call the Gravedigger — Newspapers Aren't Dead (Yet)

11 Comments

[qi:044] Rarely a day passes when I don’t see an article or blog post predicting the death of the newspaper industry. A good rule of thumb in the technology industry or financial press, however, is that when everybody agrees with the same prediction it’s probably wrong.

Newspapers are going through an unprecedented period of turmoil. Surely some companies will perish, but not all. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic as my new company is based on providing professional services to publishers. To that end, I’ve met with many senior people in the industry. They’re smart, and they’re aware of emerging technologies. They want their companies to succeed. If they’re slow to adapt it’s because they have to figure out how to do so without causing undue harm. It’s easy to armchair quarterback, but I don’t think that, given the opportunity, many of us in tech would do any better running these companies.

A Willing Audience
I believe that newspapers are struggling, at least in part, because of a basic misunderstanding about advertising. Online advertising is based on the wrongheaded premise that ads are unwanted parasites, therefore we should build highly automated systems that minimize them and try to predict what any individual might want to see. But these systems were largely built by engineering-driven companies that don’t understand the art of selling, and fail to realize that many people like to shop. Nobody wants to deal with Whack-A-Mole popup ads, but if you create a welcoming marketplace, people will visit, while sellers will happily pay rent (advertise) to be there.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember sifting through your favorite magazines for ads from companies that offered things you liked to buy. The basic format of merchandising pages was little changed for decades. Whether the page was displaying what’s for sale at the local grocery store, JC Penney or Sharper Image, the basic concept was to display products in an attractive and efficient way. That’s the irony. Newspapers and magazines are actually being punished for embracing new technology (moving to free web-based publishing, pay-per-click ads) when they already had an advertising format that was tailor-made for the web.

I like to travel. On the sites I visit, I often see thumbnail ads for various airlines, but never anything that prompts me to act. But what if the site had a travel marketplace that was interesting in its own right, an attractive display of travel offers from many vendors (remember when papers used to do just this?). I might see a color display ad promoting a bargain trip to Tahiti here, a compact list of Delta’s best international fares there, links to relevant articles from my paper over here, all in one, efficiently laid-out page. The point is that if you create an appealing and efficient marketplace, you’ll attract readers.

Making the old new again
Imagine that — people going to a page specifically to read ads. Outrageous? That’s exactly what people did for decades when they leafed through display ads to see what was on sale. There’s no reason this format can’t be relaunched in an improved form on the web.

It would be ironic if a key to newspapers’ survival was to rediscover a merchandising format that was invented more than a century ago, one whose solution is not rooted in technology but clever design and layout. I, for one, would welcome witty merchandising tactics over ads that have all of the appeal of a prompt on an ATM machine. Advertising is part of our culture and language. If nothing else, we’re a nation of willing buyers, and while we may complain about it, we’re always receptive to a clever sales pitch. Just ask President (and master salesman, in the good sense) Barack Obama.

Brian McConnell is the founder of the Worldwide Lexicon project and Der Mundo.

11 Comments

Sharper Image Review

Newspapers “misread” their audience ten years ago. They thought they had more of a stranglehold, and because of it they thought they could get people to pay monthly just to log into their sites as if readers couldn’t get the same story somewhere else. Bloggers killed the newspaper – and the people rejoiced.

Eventually, newspapers are going to have to realize that the physical newspaper is now marketing material for their website and their websites are going to have to become CMS’s that archive all their content – trailing back to day one. Then share link love (instead of keeping it all internal) and hold on for a very bumpy ride.

Tom Foremski

So, newspapers aren’t dead yet because they could use an ad format similar to the one in print? What about payment for the online ads? What would the revenues be compared with what they currently do? There is no analysis here at all, nothing to call off the grave digger. The headline is totally disconnected from the content.

“I believe that newspapers are struggling, at least in part, because of a basic misunderstanding about advertising.” You believe they are struggling? They are struggling because online ads don’t pay as much as print. There is no “belief” necessary. Even if the online ads paid two, three times the rate, it still wouldn’t be enough. Creating a page of travel offers?! Wow.

Jeffrey

People still seek out classified ads — on sites like Yelp (which has essentially supplanted the old advertising role of the newspaper with more reliable user-generated reviews). Newspapers have mostly elected to avoid producing this kind of site because they didn’t want to lose editorial control and advertising revenue. Now they couldn’t compete even if they had the resources to.

Yogindernath

I think that all newspaper companies should bee looking at the Olive Software’s Active Paper Daily – or something like it. it preserves the look and feel of the newspaper, you can zoom, each section has a URL, ads can have click-thru links..etc etc

Ericson Smith

Ugh… A really flawed article, showing the authors bias. I’m sitting here laughing at this part:

“Imagine that — people going to a page specifically to read ads. Outrageous? That’s exactly what people did for decades when they leafed through display ads to see what was on sale. ….”

Yup, when I want to do that I go to CNET comparison shopping, or Amazon, or any one of the big shopping comparison engines… or just search google and see the price comparisons on top of the results, or just search for “walmart deals” or (this is true) “mattress covers” (my 4 year old will hate me 5 years from now when she sees this).

There are like a million ways to do what the author described, better, without using the newspapers. Want advice? Why should I use the advice columnist in the paper? I go to the advice sites. Want classifieds, I go to craigslist.

Need the weather? weather.com (or its already on my desktop). The writer of a piece mentions a website? Damn-it, I can just click on the link and go there! Get it in your head Brian, the newspapers are dead, dead, dead. They’re gonna have to figure how to cut costs as inadequate advertising revenues from web operations supplant their dead-tree cousins.

As a guy who bought the NY Times paper edition religiously every morning for many years, and who now has moved on to the excellent nytimes.com, I will predict what will happen:

1. The NY Times will sell their new building
2. They will lay off most of their staff
3. The guys who run printing presses will have a very hard time of it — but they’ll get jobs printing the circulars that fill my mailbox that I just throw in the trash without reading.
4. They will keep on just enough staff to man the website and the revenues from there.
5. They may be lucky to keep some of the side magazines going
6. Their site will have to be waaaaayyyyyy more interactive and up to the minute (think a news feed like facebook/twitter)
7. There is no place in the audience that reads the Times for a print edition.
8. There is no place in the audience that reads the Times for a kindle edition
9. We consume our news on our computers and our mobile devices

Thats it. The end. Goodbye newspapers. You’ve had a good run, you’ve been the regional watercooler, that place for a shared experience. But just like how we don’t have a shared TV watching experience anymore, in the age of watch-when-you-want, its been good my friend. Just try to tell your enablers to take their heads out of the sand, huh?

Ericson Smith

Ugh… A really flawed article, showing the authors bias. I’m sitting here laughing at this part:

“Imagine that — people going to a page specifically to read ads. Outrageous? That’s exactly what people did for decades when they leafed through display ads to see what was on sale. ….”

Yup, when I want to do that I go to CNET comparison shopping, or Amazon, or any one of the big shopping comparison engines… or just search google and see the price comparisons on top of the results, or just search for “walmart deals” or (this is true) “mattress covers” (my 4 year old will hate me 5 years from now when she sees this).

There are like a million ways to do what the author described, better, without using the newspapers. Want advice? Why should I use the advice columnist in the paper? I go to http://answers.yahoo.com, or http://www.funadvice.com

Need the weather? weather.com (or its already on my desktop). The writer of a piece mentions a website? Damn-it, I can just click on the link and go there! Get it in your head Brian, the newspapers are dead, dead, dead. They’re gonna have to figure how to cut costs as inadequate advertising revenues from web operations supplant their dead-tree cousins.

As a guy who bought the NY Times paper edition religiously every morning for many years, and who now has moved on to the excellent nytimes.com, I will predict what will happen:

1. The NY Times will sell their new building
2. They will lay off most of their staff
3. The guys who run printing presses will have a very hard time of it — but they’ll get jobs printing the circulars that fill my mailbox that I just throw in the trash without reading.
4. They will keep on just enough staff to man the website and the revenues from there.
5. They may be lucky to keep some of the side magazines going
6. Their site will have to be waaaaayyyyyy more interactive and up to the minute (think a news feed like facebook/twitter)
7. There is no place in the audience that reads the Times for a print edition.
8. There is no place in the audience that reads the Times for a kindle edition
9. We consume our news on our computers and our mobile devices

Thats it. The end. Goodbye newspapers. You’ve had a good run, you’ve been the regional watercooler, that place for a shared experience. But just like how we don’t have a shared TV watching experience anymore, in the age of watch-when-you-want, its been good my friend. Just try to tell your enablers to take their heads out of the sand, huh?

Richard Jones

Another apples to hand grenades article on Gigaom.com. Newspapers are in trouble because their owners are in most cases over leveraged and drowning in debt. And in a down turn in advertising and the debt cannot be serviced ..The internet did not kill news print …debt did…Companies still want to advertise but the biggest and most consistent advertisers……Cell Phones ( consolidation ) Auto dealers ( near death) Real Estate ( dead) Department stores ( consolidating) Classified/ job listings (please!). ARE DOWN AND OUT..Newspaper do not lack for readers …..they lack cash flow Please OM I am finding fewer and fewer reason to stop by here

Charles

if i’ve said it once… all newspaper companies should be looking at Olive Software’s Active Paper Daily – or something like it. it preserves the look and feel of the newspaper, you can zoom, each section has a URL, ads can have click-thru links, you can put in printable coupons, the inserts and sale paper can still be there – what’s not to like about it?

Niraj

I’m not as optimistic about newspapers, and it’s funny how you hit on the same point as this article from over a year ago: http://www.najp.org/articles/2008/02/crisis-what-crisis.html

The thing is, not much has changed in that amount of time, except that more papers are shutting down. You may say they’re slow to adapt because they want to avoid causing undue harm, but what about when the alternative is shutting down completely? I’d go with the undue harm and take some risks and quicker action.

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