A few months ago, I was asked to attend a conference to speak on the direction and future of newspapers. Then, a month ago I was approached by a different association asking if I would consider being a keynote speaker for their convention; the subject was once again about the future of newspapers.
Regretfully my schedule didn’t allow me to participate, but the invitation prompted some serious thoughts and a bit of internal confusion. Seems like we all want to know where our future is heading. If anyone can tell me with any degree of certainty where our industry is going, I’d sure be interested in knowing! It’s a question that keeps a lot of us up at night.
Today, we are each determining the future of newspapers. We each have our own ideas and I believe that I, along with many others, may simply be approaching things from a monochromatic angle.
I’m a strong believer in running an efficient printing operation, seeking new opportunities and trimming the fat. However, in many of our newspapers we seem to have become so focused on trimming dollars that we’ve moved our attention away from new approaches to generating revenue.
Recently, I was reviewing a white paper published by Southern Lithoplate titled “25 Ways to Improve Your Print Products.” The opening teaser began with an introduction of “It isn’t time to abandon or undermine print. It’s time to reinvent it and reshape it.” This truly grabbed my interest.
Within the intro there was a very profound statement by Bill Ostendorf of Creative Circle Media Solutions that put my cost cutting approach into question: “Almost none of the decisions newspapers have made in the past decade had anything to do with our readers. All our decisions are based on cost savings and most are anti- reader. I would argue that we caused much of our decline, not our platform.”
This very astute statement reminded me of a publisher a few years back, who after a hard discussion on some difficult cost cutting measures, said to me: “Jerry, we’ll never cut our way to prosperity.” This statement and the thought behind it has stuck with me over the years, but as many of us feel more and more compelled by the fight or flight approach our properties are following, I may have gotten sidetracked and went down a one-way street the wrong way.
In this article I’m wandering a bit off the operational platform I normally write on, but let’s keep in mind that in the end, without revenue to offset expenses and provide some margin of profit for our newspapers, all the cost cutting in the world isn’t going to be enough to sustain our business plan.
Who Wins the Battle: Print or Digital?
Recently, I was speaking with a publisher who was very pleased with the fact that he went into a coffee shop and two young ladies in their early twenties had a newspaper spread across the table reading it page by page. A few years ago this wouldn’t have come up in our conversation, but now it seemed like some amazing anomaly (dare I say a modern day miracle?) Was I pleased? You bet. Was I surprised? Not one bit. If we continue to provide interesting and relevant information, otherwise known as “news” that you can’t get elsewhere, we will be successful—it really is as simple as that. Stop using age, economics, ethnic background, etc. as an excuse for our challenges and face the facts. Content is king.
The print verses digital controversy has been going on for some time, and I believe it will go on for awhile longer. How long? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by shifting print dollars to digital?
In the end, it really shouldn’t matter if you prefer your news on paper or electronically. What should matter is where you get news from and the only way to control that is to give the reader what they “need and want” and can’t get elsewhere. We can still be the leaders, the go-to place for strong, relevant local news content and useful advertising. I want to be certain that when the two young ladies are in the coffee shop getting their “news fix” that my advertisers are in their face and that the news they are reading, either on paper or in a digital format, is in my publication and that we are not only providing a service to readers and advertisers, but we’re doing so with a working business plan that returns a sustainable profit.
My love for print will not fade.
My Sunday ritual is to sit with a newspaper for an hour and enjoy every last word. But that’s my choice and not everyone else agrees with it. No matter how I attempt to sway her, my wife reads our local paper online. The digital age is here and unless we embrace it and figure out how to make the model work for our news gathering organizations we’re going to go the way of the VHS tape and Blockbuster Video.
For now, I’ll continue to speak out of both sides of my mouth.
I recently had a commercial print customer who reduced their print quantity and began to shy away from print (to save money) and moved their content to digital. Personally, I felt they were forgetting their audience. The product was a “criminal lineup” type newspaper. It seemed people enjoyed going into the convenience stores, slapping down a dollar and seeing which one of their friends graced the pages that week, then sharing it with their other “associates.” Going online just didn’t provide the same satisfaction. After quickly realizing what their audience really wanted, they have since returned to print. That’s just a small example of giving the people what they want and gearing product to audience.
Not all of my articles have been aimed at cost savings. Many of them have provided ideas on how to generate revenue through cross-departmental efforts and others have been focused on how to drive commercial revenue. I’ve written articles for E&P on topics like “Creating Revenue Streams through Innovative Thinking and Management of Operational Resources,” “How the Production and Ad Departments Can Team Up to Help Drive Revenue” and “Newspapers Should Partner with Commercial Customers to Build Revenue,” just to name a few.
Stepping down from my soapbox for a moment, let’s cover a few ideas on how to generate new revenue for your newspaper (or should I say news organization).
Classified/In-paper Techniques to Produce Revenue
Some may disagree with the approach of “busying-up” the pages of your newspaper, but I believe the more variety you can offer customers and advertisers and allow them to stand out from their competition, the better. Some regard it as filling the classified pages with clutter, but I see it as yet another opportunity to generate revenue and provide services to customers.
Color and Other Add-ons to Our Classified Pages
This falls under the category of “every penny counts.” You’re not going to make a ton of money here but every little bit adds up, and more importantly, it builds readership.
The majority of our classifieds come in by phone, email or online. First, provide customers with unparalleled customer service. After many years of cutting back service reps, compromising service and raising prices, it’s time to get our act back together.
Price color reasonably and train your classified reps to up sell color; better yet, simply teach them to “help the customer find the best solutions.” If full-color photos are impractical for small advertisers, sell them on spot color and make it affordable. Sell non-blended process colors like magenta and cyan, or yellow blocks over type. Additional unique graphics like boxes, shapes, colorizing logos, interesting typography and tying print to digital can help regain lost revenues. Again, keep the price point reasonable and sell volume.
Some of your larger classified advertisers, such as car dealers and realtors, may be interested in full-color in-line classifieds to market their vehicles or homes. This is where production comes in to ensure perfect registration and color quality that meets advertiser expectations.
Would your larger classified advertisers be more interested in running an ad if they knew your classified pages were the place people go to buy a car or home? Hopefully! The reality of it is our classified pages have died and efforts to resuscitate them have been poorly executed.
Free digital classified advertising such as Craigslist provides the search functions, the reach, multiple full color photos, etc. that you’re simply not going to get in a printed paper. But let’s face it, the big draw is that it’s free.
Yet our papers still scratch their heads and complain about those huge classified margins we used to enjoy. Guess what? They’re gone. But, what’s wrong with fighting fire with fire? Let’s do something about it.
Many papers currently provide free ads to people giving away items; some provide free ads for items under a certain amount of dollars. I’ve always thought that providing super cheap $1 or free classified ads in print would draw folks back to our classified pages and then when the larger advertisers realize we are where locals go to look for used cars, jobs, homes, etc., it would in turn draw larger dollar advertisers to our pages.
Yes, this concept would cost us more newsprint, but the first thing it would do would be to knock any shoppers out of our markets and return some volume and size to our anemic classified pages.
Next, we battle Craigslist through our own digital presence. Sure this may be easier said than done, but isn’t that why we have salespeople? We’ve got to find a better way to pair digital and print advertising so they complement each other instead of fighting each other. Craigslist doesn’t have a printed product that touches local/community non-digital individuals and strange as it sounds, I feel that’s a shortfall we can capitalize on. If we successfully pair print to digital at a price point that the small advertiser is comfortable with, we just may be able to build-up volume and our classified presence to bring larger advertisers back to those pages.
I firmly believe that after a terrible landslide in our circulation and classified advertising, things have leveled off, and now is the time to not only secure our place but to undertake a complete rebuild.
Same old, same old really hasn’t worked too well and unless we introduce some bold new ideas and take some calculated risks I believe our obit is being written.
Digital isn’t where we should be turning our focus, nor is print, it should be a combination of the two. We need to concentrate on pairing both to present a united front that provides readers and advertisers a must-have product they can’t get anywhere else.
We need to focus on the relevancy of our publications in the market and what we can provide to readers and advertisers that no one else can. There are plenty of digital options out there, and unless ours provides unique local and regional content we’re going to blend into the background with dozens of other contenders and they will continue to remove our revenue little by little. If we provide something others can’t, regardless of if that’s with ink or electronically, we then become relevant in our communities, grow our brand and stand out from the crowd.
No one—absolutely no one—can be what we are in the local markets.
I sincerely hope that somewhere an advertiser who is questioning the value of newspapers is reading this article and is able to take away the message that newspapers, through their combined printed products and digital offerings, still provides local eyes and credible quality news coverage that won’t get lost in the barrage of untrustworthy and undependable web pages.