Sunday, June 14, 2009

What local newspapers should do to survive and thrive in these challenging times

OK, I was critical of the American Press Institute's tired ideas for the newspaper industry. But what do I propose? Well, here goes: 10 ways to strengthen local newspapers in the face of the economic meltdown and the societal shift to the Web.

Today I publish my first recommendation. I'll build my list over the next 10 days.

1. Start with the customers: Readers and advertisers. This might sound obvious. But too often newspapers still base their thinking and strategy on their own processes, traditions or needs. They have to stop thinking of readers as receivers or advertisers as sponsors, and instead treat them like participants in a common community.
• Readers should be able to customize/personalize how they use the services of their local paper. With everything newspapers offer, from the main newspaper and specialty print products to Web sites and smart phone services, the user should feel a sense of control.
• Readers should be able to contribute to the community conversation and a community’s understanding of itself in everything a newspaper does.
• Readers are looking for tools to improve their lives: financially, intellectually, emotionally, health-wise, etc. Newspapers should do everything they can to meet that need – to be a resource for a better life – and make sure their communities know that’s what they’re doing.
• Newspapers shouldn’t produce content the way they’ve always done it: basically, this could be boiled down to headline and text. Instead, they should ask what would provide the greatest benefit to readers in any medium and do that.
• Just as readers should be able to customize and personalize the services of a newspaper, so should advertisers. Newspapers need to be a resource to help businesses grow.
• Just as readers should be able to participate in the community conversation, so should advertisers. It’s newspapers’ job to help them do so. Banner ads don’t cut it.
• Just as readers need tools to improve their lives, so do advertisers need tools to improve their business. Newspapers should provide those tools and make sure that businesses know that newspapers are the place to turn to improve their competitive position in a local market.

Here are some concrete steps:
• Change the way subscriptions are sold. Switch to a membership model. (See step #2.) Enlist the community in the newspaper’s mission and offer a whole range of ways to be part of that mission, including never receiving a print product.
• Ask readers and non-readers alike what they want from a menu of options and then give it to them. This means newspapers should be asking for every e-mail address in a household and every cell phone and the capability of every cell phone, not just for the home delivery address. Each member of a household should be able to opt for a different suite of products/services and have a different relationship with the newspaper organization.
• Highlight readers' contributions on all platforms and celebrate their role by rewarding contributors with greater visibility, shout-outs and financial rewards.
• Offer advertisers ways to participate in social networking appropriate to their businesses.
• Provide advertisers with an easy-to-use suite of tools to allow them to play in the digital world.

Next: Establish a clear and credible public service mission.


  1. "aged news" versus "fresh news" is serious problem for printed newspapers.

  2. As syndication gets cheaper and easier to find, original research becomes more dear.

    The readership notices and appreciates footwork, especially in the local context. This is exactly what people are going to be starving for as their local papers die off -- not the practiced brevity that leaves the reader feeling constantly deprived of detail, not the painstaking grammatical polish, and for sure not those dumb puns.

    An outlet could keep a small army of stringers on call, rather than a handful of seasoned (and highly paid) professionals. The stringers could offer reduced quality but increased quantity, timeliness, and relevancy to the public.

    Raw news is a very attractive idea as well, especially in today's glut of "common taters". What were the minutes at the city council meeting? Just publish that. Publish the raw audio or video from public hearings and events.

    Maybe it doesn't all have to be packaged up quite as tightly as it used to be on paper. Pixels are plentiful. Consider the success of mp3s over the next-generation of CD -- cheap and accessible trumps audiophile quality.

  3. I have two comments on your article:
    (1) With the loss of the Rocky Mt News, Denver lost it's local voice and watchdog. A local newspaper may be the prime, or even sole, source of local news coverage and commentary. I think this should be the primary mission of a city newspaper.
    (2) Inviting readers to personalize the news may result in a very uninformed readership. I read the newspaper because it provides to me news that I wouldn't look for, e.g., I might not say that I want articles on Pacific islands, but when breaking news comes from the Pacific islands and is included in my newspaper,I am offered an opportunity to both be updated on current world news and to be enlightened.

  4. I cannot think of anything that would be more of a turnoff for readers than giving advertisers more of a say in how the paper is put together. A dirty secret of the newspaper business is that advertisers already have a hell of a lot to say on how the newspapers are put together, witness the demise of consumer reporting and columns. Turning readers into mere recepticles for advertisers is a definite reader turnoff. I wait your other suggestions, but I see nothing here where you are asking readers what they want. No, I don't mean focus groups. I mean going out into the community and asking people on the street what they expect to find in a newspaper. There is nothing here that would improve circulation. American newspapers need to look across the pond and see how they do it in England, where newspapers are based largely on circulation. Once you have the circulation, ads follow.

  5. The key point left out: Start writing and reporting news in ways that readers find appealing. Too much of the journalistic process is tied up in delusional thinking about being a "watch dog," producing serious, important government reporting, and presenting it in a laboriously dry "objective" format. Reporters need to get more involved their communities, not just to the point of knowing more things and more people, but actually caring, and then reporting and writing in a manner that inspires that community to get more involved.

    In the readership survey about "cares about my needs," and "looks out for my interest," it's just not enough to do one more database report about how many building permits were issued to the mayor's largest donor.

  6. Thank you for your comments. A few thoughts:

    Dave Barnes is absolutely right that "aged news" versus "fresh news" is a serious problem for printed newspapers. Too many newspapers, including the very best, act as if readers haven't already heard what they're reporting. This approach sends a message to readers and especially non-readers that it's not worth spending time with the paper.

    I'm with Sierra on the potential value of "an army of stringers." Wait till one of the later recommendations. Where I don't agree with him is that minutes of governmental meetings are not going to do much to help newspapers survive. Sure, there's definitely a place for organizing that material. But we know that's not what most people are looking for. They still want others to help them make sense of the world.

    I agree with PSLB about the importance of the watchdog role for any local newspaper. Where I think he's misreading me is in the extent of personalization I'm proposing. Sure, people could lock themselves out of being exposed to important information if they had total control. But we live in a time where people can and do expect more control over their lives. I view that as positive. Why not help them? That's why listening is important.

    I don't know what post Edward Allen was reading, but it's my experience that's typical for him. The post starts with listening to readers. And the first four steps are all about readers. But newspapers need to help advertisers if they're going to survive. That doesn't mean giving them control over content. But it does mean listening to what they need and figuring out ways to help them. If newspapers don't, somebody else will. As for his claim about the dirty secret of the newspaper industry is a total crock. As usual with Mr. Allen, he makes a claim for which he has no support or personal knowledge. He's already told me that he doesn't work in a newsroom. Go back and read the post again. It says listen to readers.

    Howard Owen says his point is left out, but he too didn't seem to read the post very closely. Here's what I wrote: "Newspapers shouldn’t produce content the way they’ve always done it: basically, this could be boiled down to headline and text. Instead, they should ask what would provide the greatest benefit to readers in any medium and do that." I'm saying present content in ways that readers find appealing, his word. I don't think it's wise to make villains out of the journalists in America's newsrooms or to act as if all their watchdog work is "laboriously dry." I read a lot of fantastic reporting and storytelling.

  7. Mr. Temple,

    Thanks for your response.

    I guess you'd have to put me down as a vote for *more* laboriously dry, since I want more of the details, and I like making my own summaries of the raw news. I'm a fan of Meet the Press, Bill Moyers, BBC World News, and such dry fare. I've often transcribed speakers at CU (like BB King) on my laptop and emailed the transcript to my friends to share in the experience.

    This next idea is kind of a stretch, and wouldn't qualify as a newspaper of any sort (but could compete with them). Someone could put raw news up from witness-contributors, preferably in the form of audio or video, and then attach a wiki page to the event to allow the visitors to encapsulate the relevant news value as they see fit. The editorial process is completely transparent, and people in a hurry can get the big picture quickly.

    Yes, I know about WikiNews, but it's not local, and it doesn't start with the raw news.

  8. "As for his claim about the dirty secret of the newspaper industry is a total crock."

    That howler doesn't add to your credibility among reporters.

  9. Sierra, I don't think your second idea is a stretch. In a way, that's what we're seeing from Iran right now and it's clearly helpful.

    As for Mr. Fikes, you didn't work in my newsroom. The problem of today's newspapers is not the influence of advertisers on content. To paint it that way with a broad brush is unfair to the many principled people working in our newsrooms.

  10. I received a very thoughtful comment from a very experienced former news executive who gave me permission to post excerpts. The writer makes a great point about the bunker mentality that can occur in a newsroom.

    Here it is:

    I like your first way to strengthen the paper. I would encourage you to think about ways journalists and publishers and advertising execs can get out of the building and talk to customers/readers.

    There is nothing that makes news consumers more angry than the fact that news people are not accessible.

    The bunker mentality that rules news orgs now is really hurting them. Everyone inside seems running around spinning their wheels. They are all very busy but they don't know what people like me are thinking or doing. I'm not saying they need to come and talk with us individually. But figuring out a way that newspapers in particular can extend themselves to the community in ways other than sponsoring the local run or the other "easy" stuff that our former employers used to do.

    I am thinking about David Carr's piece about the Austin alternative paper and its music festival. The Austin American Statesmen does many more events and is much bigger. But the alternative paper has sponsored this music event and the paper's founders have been integrally involved in every aspect of it. The community feels that they care about Austin and that they want to be with the people. So the Austin alternative is making money and circ is up while the Austin AS is losing profit margin and circ. Why? Because people feel they have an intimate conversation going with the alternative guys. They are out on the streets, in the cafes, at the local festivals.

    Being present in our communities by holding forums, attending or partnering in events, being accessible is a key role to community leadership and to improving the bottom line. It's very intimate and involves being personally vulnerable.

    I don't think particularly the younger generation wants news folk to be their friends. But they do want them to be part of the community, to listen, to open their hearts to what is really happening. There's no better way than to be present.

    Whether it's selling insurance or selling news, there is just no better way to solidify or in newspapers case, to save the business.

  11. As for his claim about the dirty secret of the newspaper industry is a total crock."
    Wasn't Scripps the chain that offered FedEx exclusive rights to finance a Memphis round-the-globe advertorial, pointing out all the places FedEx goes. FedEx is a leading business in Memphis. Were you not vice president for news at Scripps when this happened? Yes, I know the project was cancelled after howls of protests from both the newsrooms inside Scripps and outside.

  12. Mr. Temple,
    I never claimed anything was wrong with your newsroom. You are surely aware that a general claim about a widespread practice can't be refuted by one example to the contrary. Even taking you at your word, your rejoinder is irrelevant.

    Advertiser sway on editorial content to suppress negative coverage happens in newsrooms across the country. This is widely known by reporters. Maybe for some reason reporters don't feel free to tell you this. That happens sometimes with executives who don't want to hear bad news from their underlings.

    Here's an example of what I mean.

    Of course, undue advertiser influence on editorial copy is not the only problem facing newspapers. But denying it's a problem at all loses you credibility with the reporters and the public.

  13. Ack, the link didn't work. Here it is:

  14. Thanks for pushing your point, Bradley. If only this were the big problem...

    As for Mr. Allen, he's absolutely right that there was a controversy over a series produced by the Memphis paper. That's going to happen. Journalists are going to make decisions that on second thought don't feel right. That said, again, I don't see this as the biggest or anywhere near the biggest issue facing American newspapers. Good companies have processes to deal with such controversies, which is what Scripps did, with my participation.

  15. Readers... but which ones? Can local news organizations can produce one product that is everything for everybody? Do they need one brand or many brands to reach different type of communities? I don't believe that there is a mass market answer anymore. And that's one of the main difficulty.


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