This is the final post in a series of 10 on what local newspapers should do to survive and thrive in the face of the economic meltdown and societal shift to the Internet.
10. Stop pretending newspapers can be all things to all people. Newspapers are prisoners of their own past. They have to break free. The future is actually more exciting than anything in the past, if newspapers can find a way to participate in it. The best way to acccomplish that goal would seem to be to stop thinking like newspapers. In this new world of many niche publications and a few giants – CNN, The New York Times, Yahoo!, Google, MSN – what can the local newspaper do better than anybody else? I think the answer is clear: Connect its own community and help it understand itself. To do this, newspapers don’t need to develop their own unique technologies or tools in every market. Google is the same wherever you go. But what they do need to do is be the leading source of local information – and that doesn’t just mean news. The Web has opened the door for newspapers to become resources about all the dimensions of a community, places where people can find out what they want, when they want, how they want. But that doesn’t mean newspapers can do everything. Advertisers and readers are going to want to be associated with a highly respected organization that delivers real value. Advertisers want results. News doesn’t necessarily give them the results they want. So it can only be one part of a newspaper’s offerings. This doesn’t mean it isn’t central to the organization's mission. But it does mean that to think doing it well is going to be enough to save most newspapers is probably folly. Editors by definition are constantly making decisions. It’s time to make a lot of tough decisions. But now, instead of editors or publishers doing that alone, they need to involve their entire staffs in refining the focus of their organizations, in determining where effort is best expended. The basic building blocks remain the trust and identity a newspaper can establish with aggressive watchdog reporting, by looking out for the interests of the individual and the community. Newspapers have to convincingly make people in their communities feel a part of that mission, feel that they’re being served by the newspaper. But if a newspaper is going to establish that bond, what must it stop doing? That’s a tough question, but one it’s time to answer.
Here are some concrete steps:
• Why does every day of a newspaper seem largely the same? Sure, papers run different sections on different days - entertainment guide on Friday, etc. - but the basic structure is predictable. But are readers' needs and advertisers desires the same every day? I don't think so. Detroit’s papers have it at least partly right in producing limited page count single-copy editions on the days they don’t home deliver. It’s time to treat the print newspaper as a product, intentionally designed for the user. Make every day have value. Name it and tell readers what makes it worth buying. If it can’t pay for itself, change it until it can or eliminate it.
• Study the paper and its Web sites for all “commodity content” available easily from other sources. Reduce the volume of that content dramatically and replace it with unique content or use the cut as savings and repackage the remaining content to heighten its value.
• Determine what your newspaper is going to be known for and make sure everybody in the organization – everybody – knows what’s on the list and why.
• To return to the beginning of this 10-part series, start with the customer and the world they live in. Ask them what matters to them and let them know what they tell you and what you’re going to do about it.