Sunday, June 21, 2009

What local newspapers should do #6

This is the sixth in a series of 10 posts on what local newspapers should do to survive and thrive in the face of the economic meltdown and the societal shift to the Internet.

6. Newspapers should revamp their approach to print advertising. If they do, it will free them up to change their approach to the type of content they print. Today, the approach to editorial content is in part driven by the need to fill holes around ads. As a result, at least partially, you see “A” sections filled with wire stories that can be easily cut to fit. Yet in other areas of modern life, high quality product design has become a standard consumer expectation. If you want proof, all you need to do is go to Target. Or go and test drive a modest, compact car. Even those are well designed now. Yet in many newspapers much of what they print still looks like an after thought. They present small and unwieldy partial pages that editors “fill” with “wire” content that feels like yesterday’s news. That can’t continue. Newspapers need to adopt a more coherent approach to print advertising that allows them to elevate the quality of their content. This will provide a basis for them to charge readers more, something they’re going to need to do in many cases. In others, it may be that a free newspaper with a fixed-page count with standard advertising units sold on an auction basis is the better approach. But in either case, what’s essential is that the advertiser is connected to quality editorial content and that’s only possible if editors can actually plan for the units they have to work with. We’re long past the days where newspapers can get away with “filling” holes. Space actually dictates content. If you doubt that, just check out what people say on Twitter versus what they might say on a blog.

Here are some concrete steps:
• Establish a set of standard ad sizes and positions and make those apparent to potential advertisers on the newspaper’s Web site, the way USA Today already does. Make the ad sizes modular, so they can be adapted to any format. Even today’s broadsheet papers may want to produce some tabloid sections or even editions in the future. If newspapers put the customer first, they will make it easy for them to understand the sizes and make it easy for them to build ads in those sizes.
• Provide an online way for smaller advertisers to build and distribute standardized print ads. Take the work out of it for them.
• Adopt this approach in all specialty publications.
• Reinvent the editorial content of the newspaper based on the ability to use modules that can be placed in any position. Stop using “wire” to fill holes. Make every content decision intentional, with the reader in mind. Ask not whether something would fit. Ask whether anybody would want to read it.

Next: Flip the model on its head.
Previous: Make the local newspaper a transactional site.


  1. xxx Make every content decision intentional, with the reader in mind. Ask not whether something would fit. Ask whether anybody would want to read
    Hooray. At last something for me, the reader. I thought you had forgotten about me, and have been wondering when you were going to get around to talking about who is going to be reading this revamped product. Only one paragraph, but I relish that in all of its glory.
    Might I point out this very interesting chart that Alan Mutter posted. It is halfway down the page:
    Note how newspaper readership is sinking, down to 30 percent among young people, but also tellingly declining even amongst the older generation who used to mine their newspapers.
    It's not just an ad revenue crisis that newspapers face, but a readership crisis. The fact is many are so damn dull they aren't worth reading. I wait the remaining parts of you series to see what you are going to do in the traditional rooms editors control, rather than those parts of newspapers traditionally controlled by the business departments.

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