My friend Steve Outing has what he calls a "blog rant" listing a number of ways to "save" the newspaper industry, but says, "No longer do I have much confidence that newspaper CEOs and publishers will do the right thing."
While I often share that lack of confidence and while I'm perfectly aware that there are, indeed, morons scattered throughout the hierarchies of newspaper companies, I'm struck that his to-do list includes quite a few been-dones and am-doings.
As businesses, newspapers have done a terrible job of telling their own stories, allowing those pesky reporters to paint a gloom-and-doom picture that is ill-informed and generally distorted, and the various media critics have piled on without spending enough time looking at what's already been done.
Let me give from Outing's post some specific examples of this disconnect.
Outing: "When the time comes (for many papers, it’s here now), reduce the number of days the print edition is published (keep that print insert business alive a while longer) and rely on web and mobile distribution of news and advertising the rest of the week, transitioning the print audience to the new way, including paid digital-replica editions for the older demographic that still craves the 'print experience.'"
There are quite a few cases of reduction-of-frequency with Detroit leading the way. For awhile I've been tracking them, although I've probably fallen a bit behind. Many people in the newspaper industry think it's inevitable, although some fear that a drop in frequency will break reading habits and accelerate the downfall of profitable print. Paid e-editions aren't new, either, but they're not generating significant results.
Outing: "Stop shipping newspapers long distances any day of the week and transition far-flung customers to web, e-mail, RSS, and/or mobile news versions of your news product."
Standard operational procedure. Most regional newspapers have already whacked out-of-core distribution and jacked up mail delivery prices. Cox's AJC is even killing delivery in the fairly nearby college town of Athens, Ga., which makes me happy, since my employer publishes the Athens paper.
Outing: "Stop spending money on locally producing what others do better online, thereby cutting expenses, and focus on the newspaper’s core competencies of local news coverage and community, and performing effective watchdog journalism. Do you really need a D.C. bureau? A local movie reviewer? A full-time food editor?"
Much of the newsroom layoff carnage in the last year or so has been among Washington and state capital bureaus, arts critics, food writers and the like, as well as copy editors, cartoonists and anyone else deemed not absolutely essential. Editors are desperately trying to protect the local reporting staff. Some papers are dropping wire services, or have given AP notice of intent (there's a time delay in the contract). It's been years since I met a newspaper editor who didn't completely grasp that the mission is local, local, local.
Outing: "Dump stocks pages of day-old listings, and the daily page of TV listings, and movie-time listings from the print edition. Use a small amount of space to point print readers to web and mobile versions, which might be the newspaper’s own or someone else’s."
Also standard procedure. Most American daily newspapers include little or no stock listings these days, even though cutting the listings brought a barrage of complaints from a probably small number of people who paradoxically have money but can't afford a computer.
Outing: "Turn to an agency model for advertising, selling not just into the company’s own print and digital products, but also giving advertisers one place for them to turn to get their message smartly distributed throughout the confusing digital landscape outside of the newspaper company’s product walls."
It's worth noting that newspapers have sold $50 million worth of advertising that was distributed through Yahoo's network, including both behaviorally targeted "display" ads and employment classifieds upsold to HotJobs. And of course newspapers have been creating networks for years, including Cars.com. Beware, though: If we can make money selling ads on other peoples' sites, why do we need to pay these guys in the newsroom?
Outing: "Accept that the web is about free and stop fighting it. (Learn from the music industry’s profound mistakes.) Develop “freemium” strategies for the web and mobile, where tiers of any particular service are offered, from free to several dollars a month; but always have a free option that offers some real value and isn’t just a ruse to get people to upgrade to paid immediately because the free version is so pathetic. "
If anybody actually listened to what Steven Brill pitched recently to the newspaper industry, that's pretty much what they would have heard. The problem is that journalism doesn't fit that "freemium" model very well. And gee, wasn't there a great wailing and gnashing of teeth when the New York Times tried to charge for access to its columnists? And didn't the numbers, not the wailing, lead to the end of that experiment? Developing strategies is easy. Successful execution is damned hard.
Outing: "Create and encourage newspaper readers and digital users to join a “membership program” with an automatic monthly or annual fee that not only gives them access to some special or premium content or services produced by the newspaper (say, personalization), but also offers a killer discount and freebies card (or mobile phone app) that leverages existing advertisers, brings them lots of new customers, and gives paying members so much value that they’d be crazy to pass on paying for a membership."
That would be pretty much what McClatchy did at the Sacramento Bee several years back. Actually, membership was bundled with the newspaper subscription. Others (including us) tried to copy it. The expenses of building and running such a system way, way, way outweigh the benefits.
Outing: "Allow various ways for readers to voluntarily support the news-gathering operation ...."
OK, that one's not being done anywhere that I know, but it's not going to work. You can't go begging for donations when you're turning 20-40 percent operating margins at some of your newspapers and the only reason you're in trouble is that you borrowed too much to fund your corporate takeovers. That just doesn't play well with the public.