Friday, August 22, 2008

E&P special report on newspapers

You really get the sense of desperation in the newspaper business right now from today' special report in Editor and Publisher.

The report tries to look for the positive -- essentially saying that newspaper companies actually might be willing to try some truly drastic changes. But all those changes still have a common theme, cut back:
  • Do away with editions
  • Stop chasing nonreaders
  • Redesign papers that can be produced with far fewer people
And as the article points out, many other things are tweaks or are radical only here: And yet some change that's considered radical by newspapers would be fairly ho-hum in other industries, or countries. Take advertising. Only now are U.S. newspapers beginning to move to modular advertising, which sells high-impact ads in logical portions of a page, rather than by the column inch.

When it comes to actual innovation:
In its first year, Newspaper Next programs reached some 6,000 people, but since API rolled out its 2.0 version last February, the response has not been anywhere near that, says [APIs' Drew] Davis. The biggest newspaper companies, he adds, are most conspicuous in their absence.

Larger metro papers are not going to innovate - they are for the most part in pure survival mode. Innovation is going to have to come from small and mid-sized newsrooms where -- and I hate to say this -- you can blow the place up more easily and fire everyone who doesn't want to get with the program and hire new people with relatively little experience. (By the same token, the nature of those newsrooms, I think, is that you can more clearly articulate a vision to everyone, which may make it much less necessary to clear the dead wood; I've generally found people to be pretty reasonable when you provide a vision.)

I agree with the end of the article that we are focused too much on the newsrooms. Everyone I talk with says the real problems are in the ad bullpen, and not necessarily with the sales force. Salespeople are reacting highly rationally, for instance, when the compensation structure is so heavily slanted toward print.

One truly innovative thing might be go in and blow up the commission structure. Essentially, figure out a way to continually rebalance print and online so print gradually gets a lesser share of the commission structure and encourages moving customers as appropriate to online, or both. Several salespeople I know have told me horror stories about the commssission structures they now work under, especiall the online component. Is it any wonder online isn't being sold?

One interesting side note from the story is the remark that there are too many "writers" at newspapers and not enough "reporters." It's getting nasty out there, folks.

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At 8/22/08, 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that newspapers should stop chasing nonreaders. All those people under 35 with the latest electronic gadgetry will eventually come to newspapers when their eyesight start to fail, and all those tiny screen are hard to see. Their only recourse will be newspapers. A medium that is so ancient, it's modern.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana

At 8/23/08, 1:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure. Because technology won't progress during that time. Everything will stay exactly the same. Dream on, Danny.

At 8/23/08, 10:04 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


Would that were true. But the General Social Survey results over the last few decades show exactly the same thing -- the old saw that people turn to newspapers as they get older is a shibboleth at best. The trend line for each cohort since World War II has started lower and stayed lower over time.

You can find the classic article from Newspaper Research Journal at

But it is true that newsPAPERS should probably stop trying to convert nonreaders into paper readers. Almost a decade ago, Washington Post focus groups showed that while young professionals were voracious news consumers, but they shunned the paper, even when offered it for free. It was the physical product they did not want, not the information inside. That is why newsrooms have got to wean themselves from solely paper. And they do have to go after nonreaders, but nonreaders of their online offerings.

At the same time, of course, they do have to make the paper product as attractive to readers as possible to keep those they have and perhaps snag what few crossovers develop.

See one of my earlier posts for a tale of how my son bought a house and briefly became a newspaper reader -- but is so no longer. It says a lot about the dynamics.


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