When The Only Thing That Can Save You Will Also Kill You…

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A fascinating article from The New York Times titled, MediaNews Sees Bad Timing On Newspapers, Not Bad Bets, by Richard Perez-Pena (published December 15th, 2008) looks at how the MediaNews Group bought newspapers like The Mercury News at the worst possible time. But, beyond timing, this article documents both the lesson and paradox that most traditional media will have to face (or have faced) because of the Internet. 

The following three paragraphs follow each other towards the end of the article, and it highlights one of the biggest challenges that traditional media is presently grappling with (and the state of the economy is not helping):

"Many current and former Mercury News executives say that a lack of investment by Knight Ridder and MediaNews has given the paper a fairly ordinary website that has been slow to adopt practices that keep readers coming back many times a day, like publishing articles online well before they appear in print, updating them frequently, blogging and posting videos.

‘The answer for newspapers has to lie in building their websites better and better, and promote, promote, promote,’ said Mr. Riggs, who was the Mercury Newspaper publisher under both companies. ‘We haven’t seen that.’

Mr. Butler, the editor, said that with money tight, Web improvements have to wait. ‘Until or unless we see that those things pay for themselves, we make a serious mistake in focusing too much on that,’ he said."

To add insult to injury:

"He said that even in the heart of Silicon Valley, until recently his newsroom used a 14-year-old computer system that was incompatible with those at nearby MediaNews papers."

And you thought Marketers had problems.

For this media channel to survive, they need to get better at the Web, but until the Web can prove that it’s a revenue generator and not an investment, these companies simply don’t have the wherewithal to move forward.

Does this remind you of what the music industry did to itself? 

Instead of embracing the digital channel, the music industry forged on to figure out new ways to encourage people to pay for plastic (even though the fans didn’t want it). Same thing here with the newspaper industry. Rather than investing in the tools that will take them forward, according to Mr. Butler, they would much prefer to print newspapers and focus on what they have been doing all along.

It’s going to get increasingly difficult for the mass population to feel any degree of sympathy for these folks moving forward.

And then there’s this from Marketing Charts:

Online Newspaper Visits Increase 27%.

"The top 10 newspapers in the US collectively saw a 16% year-over-year increase in unique visitors to their websites in 2008, as well as a 27% increase in the total number of overall visits, according to data from Nielsen Online."

Many people have Blogged on and on about the woes of the newspaper industry (I am no exception to this). The truth is, I don’t want newspapers to go away. I love newspapers and I enjoy reading them – just like I enjoy buying and listening to music, but our collective habits have changed, and if these industries don’t pull up their pants and do something, the next Craigslist or iTunes is just around the corner. This time, it won’t just hurt them, these next generation tools will kill them.

If you were running one of these newspapers, what would you do? 


  1. Certain higher classes will keep buying and reading in print. Magazines like the Economist or Foreign Affairs will be alive forever. The rest of the population will of course have the internet.
    What would I do if I were running a newspaper? Convince the postal service to lower their delivery rates and maintain a print version for subscribers only. Who buys anything from a newstand anymore? (Unless you’re from New York.)
    Second, third and fourth thing I would do: trim the budget, keep the smart reporters / photographers / academics / content producers, and then proceed unleash an amazing online experience to the world.
    Last but not least: ditch the expensive downtown office space and put staff back on the beat (where they really belong).
    The hidden truth is that web ad rates need to overtake print rates. Declining print readership is an opportunity to flip the system.

  2. Bruno Boutot and I were talking about this today. He maintains that a big part of the problem is that they still think they can produce and send (one-way), whereas people want to interact and engage with the content. He notes that many newspaper sites don’t even aggregate or memorize reader contributions. No continuity. No community.

  3. If I was running one of these papers I probably wouldn’t do anything because it seems like the thinking is entrenched at the top, thus I’d be right in line with company policy.
    Maybe the question would be, “If I was to take ownership of one of these newspapers, what would I do”? I say this this because it would seem that a paradigm shift is needed at the top to see the that the change is happening and you need to communicate to and with your audience differently.
    I agree, I still think the printed page still has life (I read the paper end to end every day) but it is now an part of a broader, more integrated network where you can build loyalty better and engage near immediately with your audience and thus buying public.
    If I was to take ownership of one f these newspapers I would start small and get my staff blogging and elicit comments from the readership. Build it up to integrate video via UGC or in-house niche offerings (I’m a bit biased on that point but I know it’s true). Essentially, I would experiment and find out what works for that market.
    It’s not a huge cost or risk to begin so let your readership know you are learning too. That honesty will build more loyalty as well and maybe even some sage advice from other readers with that type of experience. Be open to learning and come down off the mountain before you fall off.
    Craig Moore
    Spider Video

  4. All of the above, and so much more…slash costs by cutting “old media” needs like copy edit (if you make a typo online, you can fix it) multiple revisions, layers of editorial oversight and the reporter as expert expectation. Add off the shelf blogging software so every article becomes an interaction. Identify the best of the blog contributors and make them adjunct staffers, rewarded to add content without being FT staffers. Reward staff editors based on how their writing contributes to revenue streams (which requires research into the articles and topics folks actually buy the paper for). Stop trying to do it all…figure out what your readers need that you are uniquely well suited to deliver and do that really really well (does anyone really buy the Boulder Daily Camera for insights on Iraq? Let the NYT or the Economist do that, and cover Boulder really really well. Stop giving away online ads as value adds for print..shift that equation by hiring a sales team that sells, creates value, gets marketing, not the order takers in place today at so many old line newspapers (NOT all, and my profound apologies to the true sales pros out there, you know who you are). I could go on for days, but, the folks who could make a difference arent listening, so I’ll move my focus back to a place where I can actually make a difference.

  5. Working for a diversity publisher/printer and having an ownership position in the company and in my capacity of being on the frontline of new media development, this post and comments really hits home. Just hours ago, some of us were discussing an ongoing web development project that we are all anxious to launch; a project that I know will be the springboard for many future online development activities (always build to scale) and will, no doubt and rightly so, directly affect the entire publishing process of the print counterpart as well.
    All of the comments above contain some great ideas and some definite must dos so I don’t want to duplicate here. Being at the forefront of diversity publishing, we know that the 100s of multicultural and community newspapers thrive, in large part, because of their local content, their connections to their community, and in most cases, lean operations. But, mainstream media is obviously in trouble; the current economic climate certainly doesn’t help, but neither does the fruitless trying to be “all things� …
    The scope of institutions and specific individuals that need to reinvent is huge: journalism and journalists, publishing and publishers, journalism schools and faculty, sales/marketing techniques and sales people, media buying agencies and advertisers. The shift required touches us all.
    Rob Cotter in his comment above notes that web ad rates need to overtake print rates. Serendipitous, considering I just saw this on AdAge earlier today —
    http://adage.com/digitalnext/post.php?article_id=134203 — including a video clip of a news item from 1981 about the San Francisco Examiner’s first foray into sending news to home subscribers’ computers via phone lines. The kicker is the final seconds of the video clip where the news anchor notes that this new “telepaperâ€? will basically cost subscribers $10 and is “not much competition for the 20 cent street edition.â€?
    I could go on and on … but suffice to say, looks like you have seeded a blog post for me … thanks (and I mean that in a nice way, Mitch 😉

  6. I think the question we all ask ourselves, at least those of us who like newspapers, is why has management not seen the problem and fixed it? The answer, from a guy who worked in the industry, is they did see it and they tried, they just could not succeed.
    Unfortunately, they had too hurdles both about the height of the CN tower to get over. Many of the newspapers are a part of large chains and in many cases media conglomerates. They became the size they are relatively recently. That means they are highly leveraged. The acquisitions made sense when they could count on 25% profit margins, but they will never see those again and therefore they can’t afford to invest further.
    The other hurdle is trying to turn a newspaper into a website. Many of the newspaper organizations invested in the internet, but the revenues were not there. So they pulled back. They were unable to be innovative inside the ink stained walls. They had too much baggage and they could not check it in. It can’t be done from inside, not easily, and certainly not with the unions.
    What would I do if I owned a newspaper company?
    I would make drastic changes – changes that would most likely cause the advertisers and readers to loose faith in my products – especially in this economic climate. This would force me to cut costs. So, I would reduce the quality of the product by further cutting costs. I might even cut the senior management, since they haven’t fixed my problem and then hire the other paper’s management because they just might fix theirs.
    I would keep doing that until all my papers were all gone. Sorry, that’s what they are doing!
    What if the question Mitch, was about saving the film camera industry? I guess we would have said invest in digital camera technology. Would we have taken our film engineers and moved them to the digital engineering department? No, and we can’t do it here either. We have to drop the paper and the press and everything along with it.
    New digital media solutions are popping everyday and few if any are coming from the newspapers. Media’s product is information. That will always be the case. But like many other industries, how the product is created, delivered and consumed will forever change. Let’s not confuse the media with the medium.

  7. If I were running one of these newspapers, and had seen the light of the digital future, and was frustrated by the owners “not getting it”… I would probably quit! And then I would go and start my own “newspaper”, completely online, and leave the redundant structures and systems of the old business behind.

  8. Stay focused on building value both online and on mobile … start rolling print back and start thinking about engagement as a two way stream and start being open; without the rest of us promoting your content you wouldn’t be seeing these crazy online numbers

  9. I work for a newspaper, and we’re definitely feeling the hurt. I’m 33 and went back to school in pursuit of an IT degree. Hopefully if the axe falls, I can go digital.
    They’re already talking about scaling things back to 6 days/week. The end is near.

  10. When will we stop waiting for someone to hand us the play book on ROI and Survival for Business.
    I wonder how long someone had a printing press before they waited to use it? “Well nobody even knows what a book is, and only the rich can read – what an absurd risk”… something tells me THAT conversation was different. Things happen when we focus on people outside our own personal reference.
    I can’t remember who said this but “Our own view is rarely the best judge of everyone else’s opinion”.
    Thanks for the post Mitch.

  11. To paraphrase a comment I heard recently: it is time that the newspaper industry stopped worrying about selling newspaper’s and worried about selling the work of journalists.
    I know sounds easier than it is, but honestly I would have paid for the Globe and Mail’s iPhone app, but it was free and no ads that I have seen…

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