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

[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.