Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Extra! Extra! You won't read all about it!

I think the one thing undergirding the decline and fall of newspapering is that, by and large, newspapers lost touch with their audience and communities long ago.

No, let me put it more strongly.

Most papers -- just like most of radio, another dying industry -- fundamentally have broken faith with their now-former readers.

They no longer are “in touch,” they haven't kept up with the times -- or with new
methods of communication -- and they now find themselves with their butts in a serious crack. Something drastic needs to be done, and needs to be done pretty quickly.

UNFORTUNATELY, big-city papers have become utterly bureaucratic and wouldn't be able to move quickly enough to adapt even if the "powers that be" had any idea what to do. I don't know that I know exactly what to do, either, but I think it would revolve around making my paper's website absolutely indispensable for my community -- and not just for "news."

"Adapting," I think, also would involve revenue streams with little to do with traditional advertising. Advertising salesmen are going to have to morph into something akin to an ad rep/event planner/public-relations agency for clients, helping them craft a total communications strategy.

The ad-rep thing is not my original idea, but that's OK. Lots of people have good ideas about what to do, and they've posted them all over the Internet.

Not that anyone in the newspaper industry cares to compile them and cobble together an action plan not involving retooled, already-failed schemes to soak what readers they still have for content that's been free on the Internet for 15 years. It's a demonstrated fact that most people won't pay for Internet content unrelated to nekkid women doing nasty things.

If you put stuff behind a “pay wall,” some smart organization -- like National Public Radio does now, like ESPN will be doing in a city near you soon enough -- will offer equivalent content for free. Their free audience will grow; your paid audience will shrink. And when your paid audience shrinks, you're also destroying your advertising base.

No, the revenue you get from subscriptions will not begin to make up for lost ad revenue.

THE INTERNET, as the public perceives it, is like traditional radio and television -- a free service. Some argue people will pay for HBO and cable, but they don't realize that paying for cable (again, in the public imagination) is akin to paying for Internet access.

They grudgingly pay for movie and sports channels only because that's the only way to access "premium" content. Yet, only a certain percentage does.

The "make 'em pay" camp also doesn't take into account that television -– both free and cable -– no longer is a true growth industry. Kids aren't watching so much anymore . . . at least not on TV. They watch on their computers, mostly for free.

Maybe they'll pay a little something to get a popular show on iTunes, but they're not going to pay for cable when they can get just what they want -- à la carte -- for pennies.

This is much like how people won't pay for The New York Times if they can get The Washington Post for free.

THE KEY to newspapers' survival in any form is this: Newspaper websites are going to have to pick up where radio and TV left off when broadcast media decided serving their local communities was for suckers.

Think podcasting. Think creating a LOCAL, LOCAL, LOCAL web-radio station. I don't think you need to hire a million full-time people to pull this off. I do think papers need to partner with local organizations and schools to pull it off -- make it, for example, partly a training ground for high-school and community-college students.

Newspapers also need to embrace four beautiful words as a way of tapping into their communities: "High school sports webcasts." Webcast local schools' games live -- preferably a videocast . . . the technology is there to do this cheaply and easily -- and sell a boatload of commercials.

Newspapers also have to get into the advocacy-journalism business again. It used to be that lots of them were good at that.

HERE'S A CASE STUDY in what should have been. The place: Omaha, Neb. The newspaper: the Omaha World-Herald. The time: a couple of months ago.

Omaha now faces the same kind of financial crisis most cities grapple with these days. When sales-tax revenues fell off the charts for fiscal year 2009, one of the city fathers' crisis actions was to gut the library budget -- to the tune of $100,000 right at the end of this fiscal year. This resulted in the kind of institutional mayhem you'd expect, including drastic cutbacks in hours.

The World-Herald ought to have -- within a week -- partnered with the Omaha Public Library, local business leaders and other local media on a citywide fund-raising campaign to make up the shortfall and add major dollars to the library foundation's endowment . . . insulation against future cuts.

The Omaha daily ought to have been running a front-page story a day about how the Omaha Public Library impacts the community. About how the cuts are hurting employees, kids and the public.

Finally, the newspaper ought to have editorialized in favor of an "Adopt-a-Library" program just like businesses have adopt-a-school programs.

Things like that -- actually embracing the notion of "the public good" -- is how newspapers demonstrate they are integral parts of their communities. It's how they begin to radically reconnect with people who ought to be readers, either of their print editions or online.

INSTEAD, you now have papers like the San Francisco Chronicle firing 230 pressmen, contracting out its printing to a state-of-the-art, third-party plant and touting how "advanced print technology" will help it compete against the Internet.

It won't work, of course, but I still want some of what the Chronicle poobahs have been smoking.

Newspapers just need to get with the program -- forget setting up a study committee, just do it. Webcast high-school sports. Start a truly local Internet “radio station.” Beef up coverage. Become LOCAL, LOCAL, LOCAL.

And it all had better be on the website . . . and the website had better be good.

Why? Like I said, ESPN is coming. ESPN local-sports websites -- the first one has been up and running in Chicago for a few months, and it's getting more traffic than the Tribune's website.

IF NEWSPAPERS can't own their local sports, right down to Little League and junior high, they're going to take a shiv to the gut sooner or later. And that's just for starters. ESPN will be one of many future “Craigslists.” Craigslist is where all newspapers' classified advertising went, by the way.

If I were a publisher, I'd trade out advertising for a Winnebago, turn it into a rolling promotion for the newspaper, make the inside a functioning newsroom with wi-fi and a Verizon (or whatever) mobile-broadband link, and I'd roll that sucker into a different town every Friday of football season. I'd put together a special web page for the local school's big game and do a webcast of it.

And I'd put together the sports section from the Winnebago, have local high-school journalism students write stories for online and let the whole damn town watch it come together.

The concept could work for a lot of things. That's because the key is in getting your audience involved. The key is in demonstrating solidarity with ordinary people . . . in showing you care about them.

It's all about loyalty.

NEWSPAPER PUBLISHERS –- hell, all American business leaders -- for far too long have thought loyalty was something consumers (or employees) automatically give them. Reality now is demonstrating they have been catastrophically wrong.

Loyalty is a two-way street. Always has been. It's time to relearn that.

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