My ‘Crisis’ Advice to Newspaper Company CEOs: 11 Points to Ponder

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The clock is ticking. The next time you gather at API — or anywhere else — for a crisis summit, ponder these ideas.

By Steve Outing

NEW YORK (December 01, 2008) — When the American Press Institute gathered 50 newspaper CEOs in Reston, Va., recently for a one-day “industry crisis summit,” corporate turnaround gurus who had assessed the participating companies’ financials bluntly told the group just how at risk their industry is — how outright failure loomed if they don’t quickly reinvent themselves. While details from the exclusive, closed-door session are scant, from outward appearances it doesn’t appear that the industry executive brain trust miraculously worked out a solution to their shared problems. (If anyone expected that from a 7-hour meeting, they were in Fantasyland.)

A post-summit press conference by API meant to summarize the outcome was abruptly canceled at the last minute. That’s probably not a good sign in terms of an actionable planning having been hammered out.

Let’s assume that the august API invitees did not come up with all the answers to saving the newspaper industry — and for what it’s worth, coming from a lowly non-CEO, I’m going to use this column to suggest to the newspaper executives what they need to do. I, along with a sizable group of new media pundits, have been proposing recommendations for turning around the newspaper industry for some time. The CEOs can plow back through our collective writing and speeches and find at least some of the answers. But knowing how busy all those guys and gals are, this column is the executive summary: my game plan for bringing the newspaper industry out of its steepening nose dive, with ideas of my own mixed in with those of other new media gurus that I endorse.

1. Issue an edict: Digital is first!

The (outdated) argument is that for a newspaper company, print still brings in the lion’s share of revenues; ergo, it’s not time yet for the company mission statement to be rewritten to direct a digital-first corporate strategy. “We can’t go to a digital-first strategy until the online/mobile side brings in more money,” the reasoning goes.

To survive, publishers have to let this one go. Digital (online and mobile) is the future; younger people have already adopted digital media as a lifestyle, and they’re not going to miraculously start reading print newspapers in any significant numbers as they grow older. Print will continue to decline as its core audience ages. So put the future at the center of the company, not the past. Now, and not before it’s too late.

There are already good examples: For instance, The Christian Science Monitor has decided to cease its weekday print editions as of next year (retaining a single weekend print edition) and emphasizing digital media. A growing number of magazines have done the same thing: PC Magazine is dropping its print edition entirely, and even Editor & Publisher years ago switched from weekly to monthly print publication while using its Web site for hourly breaking news on the newspaper industry. This is just the start; we’ll see a lot more of this in the coming years, for both newspapers and magazines.

2. Consolidate print and online editing functions

Beyond the common-sense reason of centralizing on the future and not the past, it makes sense logistically to have a single desk (or desks) each serving all the channels to which the modern “newspaper” company publishes. The modern copy desk is editing and massaging content to go out to multiple channels: breaking headline alerts to e-mail and mobile phones; brief summaries of “what we know now” for immediate publication on the Web site; longer stories for the Web and syndication as events get fleshed out; and a round-up story and/or analysis for the print edition. Also, audio reports, photos and videos for various output channels.

The photo desk cannot afford to serve just the print side; they’re also doing video for the web, and perhaps mobile. To have a separate photo desk for the print edition while another group in the “online department” shoots video for the Web site and mobile is, well, silly at this point. And for companies with multiple properties, it’s virtually inevitable that some of them will consolidate certain operations — say, copy desks in one city serving multiple news organizations. (Personally, I’ll draw the line at outsourcing that overseas.)

The newspaper that still has a separate online department is behind the curve, and hamstrung when it comes to adapting to an environment where print is just one component of the business operation — and one that’s headed toward no longer being the most important. There’s no longer a viable argument in favor of having online departments separate from print.

3. Print edition: Don’t bother chasing young people

If your newspaper is hell-bent on retooling the print edition to appeal to younger readers, give it up. Have you stepped into a coffee shop lately and noticed how most of the younger people are sitting with their laptops, or tapping on their smartphones? Chances are there are people reading the printed newspaper, but they’re mostly older. And why would younger people — digital natives — bother picking up a newspaper? Most everything in it they’ve seen already in other digital forms of media; what’s in the print edition is, to them, old news.

The only hope I see for printed newspapers to appeal to a younger crowd is free weekly editions geared toward entertainment and youth-demographic features and news — distributed at transit stations, restaurants and nightclubs. And most importantly, such free papers MUST include frequent, overt, in-your-face promotions and references to accompanying online and mobile content and services. For example, a listing of Top 10 Bars in Minneapolis should have mobile codes that readers text using their phones and get a return text with user reviews of the bar — or a mobile coupon for a 2-for-1 drink.

If a print edition is to be of any value and interest to the younger digerati, then it must be integrated with their preferred media form.

4. Print edition: Focus on the core demographic

To go along with point No. 3, redesign your print edition to appeal to your print-edition loyalists — those (primarily older) readers who still like the experience of sitting down with the newspaper at breakfast and on leisurely Sunday mornings. I think you’ll find that these readers are less interested in fluff and features, and are most wanting of their newspaper to do a credible and assertive job of covering the important news of their communities, and they want thoughtful analysis.

With remaining editorial staff (after the inevitable cutbacks that most newspapers have suffered through recently), go back to your roots as the community’s watchdog, made possible by trimming the stuff that you’ve fruitlessly being doing to attract young people to a medium they no longer want. Focus remaining staff on the really important stuff, which will get people talking the next day around the water cooler.

An example of this approach was cited recently from Neiman Watchdog, “Local Papers Find Their Inner Watchdog,” about hard-hitting local investigations by the Orange County (Calif.) Register and positive reader reaction to them. If you want to make your print loyalists happy, content and interested in your journalism, then get back to the basics of watchdog community journalism. That’s possible if you stop spending resources on chasing the unreachable younger crowd.

And, of course, that powerful local investigative and watchdog journalism will be powerful when presented online, as well.

5. Guide older print loyalists to a life online

One mistake I see so many printed newspapers make is to treat their print readers as though the paper edition is all that they need. Oh sure, most papers have a minimal number of references to additional content online, but nowhere near enough. Your print loyalists notice the thinning of the newspaper; they notice the layoffs and the experienced writers and columnists going away, replaced by younger journalists with less understanding of the local community. They will abandon your printed newspaper if the quality continues to go down, make no mistake about that.

But here’s the thing: Even older readers are discovering the online world and how much more they can do now on the latest smartphone they just upgraded to. They may not be as comfortable as their children with the new digital technology, but many of them are eager to learn. The print edition can and SHOULD be used to offer print readers a better overall product. An emasculated print edition doesn’t give even older readers much reason to stick around, but a thinner print edition can give the perception that it’s actually BETTER than before by guiding those readers to supplemental online and mobile content and services.

A thinned-down printed newspaper must, out of necessity, consistently, regularly and frequently point out digital supplements to what the reader is seeing in print.

Databases to accompany a story; a user poll for the reader to express an opinion on a controversial issue raised in a story; a cell-phone code that sends a map to the reader’s phone showing the location of an event; an invitation to an online chat with the reporter who wrote the investigative expose about the mayor’s extramarital affair; etc. By making stuff like this ROUTINE, and not just for special occasions, you guide print readers to understand that “The Times” is much more than just the (thinning) print edition.

Print readers also can be offered exclusive online goodies that regular Web site users aren’t aware of: say, print edition bonus free-coffee-at-Starbucks coupons that can be picked up online or sent to a cell phone using a code printed in the paper. In short, don’t treat print-edition readers as just print readers. Treat them as readers and users of your full range of paper and digital services.

6. Reduce the number of print editions

As an extension of point No. 5, increasingly we will see more and more newspapers forced to reduce frequency of print publication. With the economy continuing to tank and the secular pressures of advertising gravitating increasingly toward digital, this is not something that most publishers will take lightly — but it may be the only way across the burning bridge that leads to digital revenue nirvana.

Indeed, an argument can be made that better, fatter printed newspapers delivered two or three days a week may be preferable to embarrassingly thin ones seven days a week. After all, with the super-proliferation of media and personal information overload faced by many people, newspapers often get tossed into the recycling pile without being read every day. Fewer print editions per week to read may be a relief.

And the remaining print editions leave room for profitable paper inserts and weekly classifieds stand-alone sections for major categories like jobs, autos, and real estate.

And, significantly, printed newspapers (and magazines) are an environmental problem. The newspaper industry’s transition to all- or more-digital and less paper can help the environment — and cut costs.

7. Online: Broaden definition of news to include micro-personal

I wrote an E&P column about this recently, so for more detail, check that out.

The short version is that the modern news editor must recognize that for individuals, what is “news” is not what you, Mr./Ms. university-trained journalist, think it is. It’s not just how many soldiers and civilians died in Iraq today. It’s not just how the city council voted on the park curfew. It’s also that my friend Jeff just bought a new car; that Sheryl across the street got an A on her calculus final exam; that Coby, who I met at a conference last month, was accepted for a fellowship; that my co-worker Michelle is having an awful day; that Lance Armstrong, who I follow on Twitter, is heading out for a training ride.

With the popularity of online social networks, millions of people are receiving micro-personal news like that about their friends, family, colleagues, and even celebrities. It’s highly personal news, and they’re getting it from sources other than their local newspaper. What no entity currently offers is a single point of entry for an individual to get all the news that he or she wants or needs — from global, to national, to state, to city, to neighborhood, to personal social circle.

If a newspaper (or other news) company can come up with such a full-gamut-of-news service, it can save people the bother of using multiple sources to keep track of everything “news”-related that someone might want. It can offer the kind of utility that only Google currently seems capable of deliverying to the market.

How to accomplish this? The typical newspaper already covers most of it; it just needs to add some personalization features to get the news consumer what he or she is most interested in among neighborhood-up-to-global coverage. For the micro-personal component, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Most of the popular social networks facilitate sharing of personal data from their members (with permission). An external service like I’m starting to describe here can have the user log in to their social network accounts (via your sites) and their friends’ “news” (that is, micro-personal) can be included into a personal news feed.

This is an as-yet untapped opportunity. News organizations are positioned to grab it; but then, so are other Internet companies.

8. Hire a social VP

Most newspapers have a vice president of circulation in charge of print distribution. Today, you need a “circulation VP” for the Internet. A more appropriate title: vice president for social media.

A key tenet in the digital media world we now live and do business in is: Be everywhere. Any newspaper company that thinks that its Web site or sites (and maybe a few other services like e-mail newsletters, RSS feeds and mobile-phone alerts) is enough is sadly mistaken.

Increasingly, online users come to stories by your news organization via all sorts of channels that are out of your control: a link in a blog they read; a recommendation from a friend on a social network suggesting reading your story; a Twitter post about your article that causes someone unaware of your Web site to click through; an e-mail from a friend suggesting an interesting article; a Google Web search, or a Google News search, or a Google Blog Search or Technorati search; a reference to your story on a comment thread on another Web site or blog; etc.

The central characteristic of “Web 2.0” is that conversations and interactions are created and take place across disparate, unconnected Web sites, blogs and discussion forums across the Web. When a story that your news organization publishes is compelling enough to attract many millions of readers online, it’s not just because of the power of your Web site and/or brand; it’s because the viral nature of today’s
Web pushes news of this “amazing” story to people and channels far and wide, all pushing traffic back to your site.

Newspapers can take advantage of that, but they shouldn’t just leave it to chance and hope that the “good stuff” goes viral. Hire an executive who understands social media and put him to work to utilize his skills to significantly increase the visibility of and traffic to your site. Leverage that person’s knowledge in building communities, and a mobile content and services strategy, too.

9. Experiment, fail, experiment more

It’s getting late in the game, if you believe those corporate turnaround guys who looked at newspaper-company financials and issued a dire warning at API’s Crisis Summit. You’ve heard this many times before, but please take it seriously now. Hire some entrepreneurial types, and encourage existing staff to start acting like entrepreneurs. Try lots of new things and see what looks promising. Kill the projects when it’s obvious they don’t work (or can’t bring in new revenue); don’t dawdle on those decisions, and move on to another experiment. Bring in entrepreneurial experts for rah-rah training sessions with the staff to get them excited and thinking about new ideas that can turn into businesses.

Establish reward/incentive programs for employees to come up with actionable business plans. Copy Google and give employees some paid time each week to focus on reinventing-the-newspaper ideas and projects.

If you want a specific area to focus experimental entrepreneurial efforts, try mobile. The popularity of Apple’s iPhone, a new wave of phones coming based on Google’s Android operating system, and the new Blackberry Storm (and a coming wave of others) herald the era of the mass-market smartphone. I am absolutely certain that the phone will soon see mainstream use for news consumption. Do you have a phone/mobile development guru on staff yet? Get one.

10. Leverage your remaining staffers, and augment them

Obviously, the big challenge for newspaper companies is this: If the print edition continues its decline (pretty much a given), and layoffs have resulted in smaller staff and fewer resources to work with, how are we to create online and mobile news products that have a chance to become the industry’s post-print cash cows?

While I don’t have THE answer (and if I did, I’d be one wealthy media consultant), I do have some ideas:

a.) Get outside your news organization’s little box and aggregate relevant content from other sources. I already touched on that a bit with point No. 7: Provide a useful service by conducting personal filtering of micro-personal news from social networks for individual subscribers. The other part of this is to aggregate contextual headlines and links to related content; for example, your staff environmental reporter’s feature on water quality should include links to related articles and information from other sources (including competing news organizations). A box of headlines for Top Political Stories of the Day can include both your own staff content and links to the best political coverage from other media organizations.

The point is for your Web site (or mobile service) to become the place where your readers come to for the complete range of news (from the personal to the global) and a wide diversity of news (from your staff and wire services, as well the best from competing sources). Offer the right kind of utility that serves news consumers’ needs and eliminates the need for them to look elsewhere; then a brand that’s strong in the community stands a chance of becoming essential in people’s lives. Google figured that out; perhaps news organizations still can.

b.) Turn “beat reporters” into topic specialists. I advised reporters years ago that they should all blog, and I still stand by that. (I think they should dive in and use a bunch of social networks, too, because that’s the only way they’ll truly understand new forms like social media.) So for a reporter who is writing about, say, the state government beat, she should not only have her work published in the print edition and the political section of the newspaper’s Web site, but also produce and maintain a state government blog.

That blog can attract the government and policy wonks (or enthusiasts, if you prefer), and presents the newspaper’s advertising department with a niche product to sell. And it’s one with a targeted, high-value audience that select advertisers will pay a premium to reach. Now if every specialty reporter has a blog like that, that’s a lot of high-value niche ad vehicles.

I’ve gone on too long already, but just briefly, the next step with each such blog is for the reporter/blogger to build a participative community around it, of experts and enthusiasts of the topic. This is basically the concept of “beat blogging,” or using a local and/or topic expert community to take part in the coverage, which is led by (often a single) reporter. These experts may contribute articles, opinions, photos or videos themselves, take part in intelligent discussions, assist the reporter in “crowd-sourced” reporting or research, etc. Ergo, each niche blog can become not only editorially compelling and useful, and a strong community of individuals knowledgeable and passionate about a topic, but also an effective niche ad vehicle.

Multiply this times lots of topics typically covered by a newspaper, and perhaps you’ve got a business capable of making up some of the losses from the decline of the print side of the business.

11. Consider retirement

Finally, let’s address the elephant in the room. It doesn’t apply to every CEO who attended that API Crisis Summit, but the facilitators themselves suggested that “some of the people in this room” probably aren’t capable of keenly assessing their companies’ problems and effectively reinventing their operations in order to survive more than a few more years.

If you can’t fathom a radical reinvention of your newspaper company, consider handing the reins over to someone who can. Old-media companies are already making those kind of tough decisions. National Public Radio, for example, just named Vivian Schiller as its new CEO. Schiller headed up the digital efforts of the New York Times Co., so her appointment recognized that the future of NPR increasingly will focus on on-demand digital, as traditional AM and FM broadcast delivery fades in importance.

Newspaper companies probably need to be realigning their leadership to likewise recognize the new dominance of digital. Now. The clock is ticking.

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