In the latest new media survival plan, MediaNews Group wants to create more distance between its traditional print properties and its newspaper websites. In a memo posted on Romenesko, MediaNews Publisher Dean Singleton and President Jody Lodovic outlined the challenges and responses facing its newspapers as hashed out by 22 execs at a recent corporate retreat.
— Cutting the tie between print and online: The ideas as outlined by the memo are fairly obvious and ones that should have directed newspaper efforts way before volume on the “death of newspapers” talk was raised over the past two years. But the memo does represent a significant reversal in the company’s view of the problems newspapers face, both as an industry in general and MediaNews itself in particular. Last fall, when I spoke to Singleton at a Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) event promoting the APT online ad targeting and delivery system, the publisher told me point blank that newspapers’ troubles were primarily a result of the bad economy, rather than competition from the internet. And even though the idea of separating online ad sales from print upsells had become embraced by most publishers, Singleton said MediaNews was “100 percent on board with selling print and online together.”
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The company now says it will end the practice of convergent ad sales, at least in the area of classifieds. Most newspaper industry observers say has convergent ad sales only dilute online ad spending and barely add anything to print revenues. Essentially, presented with a convergent ad sale, most marketers will just slice off some of their print ad spend and buy a cheap banner ad. It’s worth seeing if MediaNews will stop at the classified department and create separate sales teams for both print and online. It sounds like the company is heading in that direction with its new emphasis on local, which up until the downturn, had been growing rapidly. In any case, all those plumbers and pizza places and other small businesses that tend not buy print ads in the newspaper could represent some new life for publishers.
— Going local: In particular, MediaNews says it needs to differentiate its various sites from their respective print moorings and as a way to reach younger audiences. The websites will be called “newspaper.com” for now, will become a different product. That initiative will serve as an umbrella over a new site, tentatively titled “news.com,” which will serve as regional news site focused on breaking news. It will still use newspaper content, albeit in an abbreviated form, alongside user-generated content, citizen journalism and aggregated news from third parties. Also, MediaNews will develop a “local utility site” under the working title of Local.com, showcasing community news and resources, as well as user-gen, shopping guides and marketplaces. At its center, Local.com will serve as a city guide and “hub,” which like Tribune Company’s Metromix, will be rolled out as a customizable site for MediaNews’ papers.
— Solving the revenue issue: In bifurcating the print and web properties, MediaNews also wants to explore the balance between free, ad-supported content and placing premium articles behind a paywall. This doesn’t mean MediaNews will be introducing new premium products; it just wants readers to register online and choose between tiered subscriptions, with the benefits tilting toward current print subscribers. While these ideas — none of which are all that radical or different from what Gannett (NYSE: GCI) and other newspaper publishers have been trying in recent years — could help maintain newspapers’ fairly strong audience growth, the ad solutions are a bit more tricky. The online revenue strategy is being built on “five or six niche vertical content channels to support targeted advertising opportunities.” MediaNews believes that it will also be able to mine some reverse publishing opportunities. The process will certainly involve a lot more meetings. The company is assembling four task forces to examine news, local, premium and technology. The groups will plot a course for delivering content, driving sales and marketing, and research and building a business plan.
— Jeff Jarvis’ counter-rmemo: The Buzzmachine blogger finds the thinking behind MediaNews’ memo woefully outmoded and wrongly predicated on newspapers remaining local monopolies. In Jarvis’ view, newspapers are bloated, stale and inefficient when compared to their web counterparts. Instead of placing the print product at the core of the business, and relying on non-existent scarcity to advertisers, companies need to become leaner, faster and trade “control” for conversations. In other words, they need to become more blog-like.