We noticed on Newspaper Death Watch that executives from the larger legacy media groups are getting together to find solutions to the newspaper profitability crisis. The group says it believes the best way for print to make “money is the old-fashioned way — by earning it from advertising.” As those generously paid executives, the ones that managed to help rush print media into this mess, ponder the problem, Someone Noticed will offer a few free ideas. These obvious opportunities apply equally to the local media.
Last weekend we were reading some old Cecil Whigs searching for insight on local subjects. As we paged through those weekly editions, so many fascinating things caught our attention that we kept getting distracted from our core research mission and it was taking up lots of time as the hours passed. But that’s exactly the point. If the publisher wants to know what to do, just stop by the public library and ask the librarian to find a copy of a Whig say from the 1960s, 1970s or perhaps the early 1980s. Of course, if the publisher is really interested they are welcome to travel father back into time. They may be surprised by what they see, a quality local product, crammed with unique content, which is what their subscribers want.
In case they miss what I am getting at here (they have missed a lot), let me be more specific. Those Cecil County weekly editions were densely packed with local news and summaries of social happenings from Conowingo to Warwick and every point in between. There were also the listings of things that were important to county readers, such as the fire and police log, capsule reviews of 100 years ago, the court record, the movies, church events, and on and on you go. Several local columnists cranked out weekly material pertaining to their beat and those pieces were insightful. Very little stale news from wires services or syndicated columns, stuff that is old by the time it lands on a door step, managed to slip into the newsprint. The pages were filled with interesting local, relevant matter, the type that caused you to sit down and spend an hour or more with the paper. Plus, you kept it around for a week for ready reference. Now think of the value for the advertiser when a reader is diligently pouring over the pages. They will see advertisements, which is good for the small business and in turn good for newspaper profitability.
For regional and national content, we have plenty of nearly real-time sources. On the Net, we can Google up dozens of in depth stories about national happenings, from different perspective. Those stories will come from quality sources such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and Time Magazine. If that’s not enough, there are three or four 24/7 cable news streams to keep us completely informed.
If you want to see the peak days of local newspapers, stop by the library and ask the librarians to pull out one of those rolls of microfilm. Be sure to ask for a date before the 1990s, when local media started blissfully ambling down the wrong route as the publishers/owners pulled back on the newsroom resources needed to produce extensive local content. (That was going on while profits soared into the 30% range, for the average company.) With the paper launched on the path of less and less local content, another dimension came along when the paper failed to notice the arrival of the Internet and was slow to adapt to that emerging technology. The final ingredient was the tanking of the economy and the loss of advertising revenue from realtors, auto dealers, and the like.
It really is about the content. Print media is important and the smart ones will transform their products before it is too late. Belaboring the point about the value of legacy media here’s the way Clay Shirky put it in an excellent piece called “Newspaper and Thinking the Unthinkable:” “Print media does much of society’s heavy journalist lifting from flooding the zone – covering every angle of a huge story – to the daily grind of attending the city council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because of the work print journalists is used by everyone . . .“ But to that we add they have to do the heavy reporting for when they fail to do that, audience share will be lost.
So it is really that straight forward, the old business model that served papers well for decades, with a modification for new efficiencies in delivery (the Net). Put some of the profit into newsroom resources and let those writers dig up the news (just make sure they do). Cover it, which ever way it happens in front of you, but be sure the stories show up in newsprint. You’ll then find that people are reading those stories and seeing the advertisements. Now there’s a value proposition that’ll work. Deliver readers to advertisers.
Publishers (local and big city) don’t go messing this thing up. Manage it far better than you’ve been doing since print journalism is important