There is one upside to all the advertising disappearing from newspapers……Consumers can now really see what they are paying for.

Opps, that’s a BIG downside.

With the effects of economic downturn clearly hitting retailers everywhere, they have slashed their advertising budgets and are advertising as little as possible. For the first time in my lifetime it means you can turn several pages in many newspapers without seeing an advertisement. When I read the Boston Globe on Tuesday (January 7), it essentially had 2 pages of ads in the 10-page A section, 3 pages of ads in the 16-page B section, and 1 page in the 8-page C section. It had no ads on page 1 (although it has been announced they will start doing so soon) and the daily classified section is no longer being published on weekdays. What was left was editorial content. Unfortunately, what was there wasn’t pretty.

In reading the paper I realized that about half the stories were from news agencies and services and that I had read many of them day before on Yahoo! News and the New York Times and Washington Post websites. A number of the paper’s local stories were on the Boston.com site or other Boston sites before they appeared in print. I am an avid news consumer and love the paper format, but the paucity of original and novel content left me wonder “Why am I still paying for the paper, especially when I have to call at least once a week because of delivery problems.”

I single out the Globe here, but the problem is everywhere I look at newspapers.

Publishers and editors just don’t get it. They have to stop pining that the old days were better and they have to stop blaming everything and everyone but themselves for the lack of value in their papers. What readers need—if they are going to keep buying papers—is content and an experience with news that they cannot get elsewhere. It has to be BETTER than that on TV, Internet, and mobile applications; it has to DIFFERENT than what they get from those sources; and it has to be news for those who LOVE news.

If editors and publishers don’t start delivering those qualities, they will soon have to stop delivering papers altogether.


Anonymous said...

When I was in doc school 15 years, one of my profs made me read some of your work. I'd been in the news biz for 20 years before that, so, of course, I knew everything. So I read. "Boring. Pedantic," I thought.

Decades flee by. Now I read you again. "Prescient. Insightful. Ahead of the curve," I think.

Thanks, Robert.

Denny Wilkins
St. Bonaventure University

Anonymous said...

Yes! I have been saying this for years. As a former journalist, I have long known how much information comes over the wires that never makes it past the editorial "gatekeepers." Because of the internet, now everyone knows it. Print and broadcast outlets have both been holding out on consumers for decades. As for local reporting, I don't think they even know how to do it anymore.

Anonymous said...

Pinrt the TRUTH and you will see more sales!!

Antonio A. Prado said...

To get this comment out of the way, as for local news, at least at my newspaper we know how to do it and do it very well. I can't say the same for all of the metros because they pay a lot of attention to nonlocal news or general issue features at the expense of the basic local news that readers keep saying that they want, and that only local papers (especially mid-sized and smaller papers) provide.

As to the print vs. Web content issue, the senior leadership at my paper operates under the notion that the Web and print are distinctly different audiences with maybe some overlap. They point to statistics that show most of our visitors are from outside of our circulation area, presumably formerly of our area, or who own vacation homes here, are alums of our university or who are interested in the area. But an increasing proportion of our unique visitors are coming from local IP addresses.

The other issue we have is that our senior leadership overreacts when they hear some readers, mostly elderly, complain about content that is Web exclusive. Then they try to figure out some way to reverse-publish or repurpose the content for print. The result is we're back to where we were before, with print and Web mirroring each other - even as much as we try to get away from that.

Another issue about the mostly elderly (and they are a huge segment of our market), they have complained about how we have scaled back our wire content, especially world and national news, to where we run many summaries with a lot of Web refers reminding readers that they can read full stories that are more up-to-date on our Web site. They complain we've thinned it down and still have beefs about how our A1 is all local with billboards or teasers to wire inside ("How could you not run the photo of Obama out front?" kind of stuff, when he's been on TV and online all day.).

Another issue we face is that our corporate overseers are opposed to radical reformatting of the print edition, such as rebooking so front sections are all local, and our second section could be all wire features and good reader pieces or analyses that might not lend themselves to the Internet audience as well.

If I had my druthers we'd break all the basic news online and do in-depth follow-ups in print where we can step back and take a look at the issues we cover in ways that our TV competitors can't. And we'd pair down wire to summaries and run only magazine-style deeper pieces that hopefully would make people want to pick up the paper to read - this is with print appealing to a narrower, more affluent and hopefully more loyal core audience.

But this goes back to getting stuck in the past, where we have this notion that if it's in print it needs to go on the Web site and vise versa. Is that why that formula doesn't work?

And it would help if our senior leadership did not overreact to single complaints by readers stuck in the past.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with your point that companies need to differentiate the print and online products.

While newspapers still command a dominant share of advertising spend, I think it's an overstatement to say the Internet isn't killing papers. The shift of ad revenue to Google and the markedly lower ad rates online - while a positive development for advertisers - has forced newspaper publishers to realign expenses with revenue. And staff is their biggest expense. So there are fewer journalists creating high quality local content, and those left are often spread thin.

I agree with your point that newspapers need to innovate. Perhaps they need to dump their print product altogether and the associated production and distribution costs and focus entirely on their web sites.

An investment site called Seeking Alpha recently posted this headline: "Sinking Ad Revenues: Death Knell for Newspapers"

They cite a report from eMarketer that projects US newspaper ad revenues to fall 42.5% in the next seven years. If these companies can't replace some of that revenue online, I don't know how high quality local and regional journalism will be funded in a sustainable manner. Here in Seattle, the papers have been losing money for more than 6 years.

One thing is clear: The industry does need some vision, innovation and fresh approaches to attract and keep the audience. But it's likely to come from startups and then adopted by the industry, as we've seen in other domains.

Antonio A. Prado said...

Curiously, maybe an hour before I got my little update of a new comment being posted, I had a conversation with my managing editor about why we should cancel my home-delivery of a competing daily that overlaps part of our circulation area.

I had told him that by the time it's tossed on my lawn I've already read its RSS feed or seen its Web site, which is why I usually bring it in and put it on the stack still tied in its poly bag.

Pretty much everything in print is online, and the online stuff is often updated post-printing.

But he said that people still look at it and it's "nice" to see how they do things in print. Why? If our ad people looked at it to see what print ads they are getting, sure, but they get the paper themselves.

One note to add from my earlier comment: While our ad revenue has been hammered, our circulation is near flat. So we are not sustaining the huge losses that metros are having. If we are losing advertisers, but not readers, and our circulation area's demographic is composed of the supposedly ideal newspaper reader (mostly older, affluent, many small-business owners, university faculty, agribusiness leaders), then would it be too risky for us to radically remake the paper to distinguish it from the Web product?

I've argued that we need to find out what advertisers want to see in the paper, to get their pulse on what might make some of them come back (presuming that the economy recovers), because the word is that the real estate people who advertised so heavily won't be back when the downturn ends. However, could that kind of strategy backfire if we lose subscribers who don't like a revamped newspaper?

To add: In the two occasions in the past seven years that we have made radical changes to format or layout, as well as smaller changes involving moving content or sections or changing when certain features are published, a small minority of readers howled - some canceling subscriptions - and upper-management froze. Now, it has stage fright as a result.