So it looks like this will be an annual thing. Every year around this time I will repeat my counter-intuitive statement that newspapers are making a tremendous mistake when they talk about dropping print and going online-only. Here’s last year’s rant.
Why this time of year? Because of what’s been arriving in your mailbox lately. Catalogs. Literally tons of expensive-to-produce, expensive-to-deliver catalogs. The idiots in the mail-order industry haven’t figured out that they could save all that money and put those things online!
But of course they’re not idiots. They spend millions of dollars on printing and delivery and millions on slick websites. Why? Because you, Mr. or Ms. Consumer, don’t have the time or interest to go fire up your “browser” (how much browsing have you done lately?) and buy their stuff.
They know you’ll buy their stuff if you happen to flip through their catalog on the way from the mailbox, see something you can’t live without, and THEN you’ll head to the browser. They know this because they pay attention to customer behavior.
Which is what newspapers don’t do very much: Pay attention. To customer behavior.
If they did, they’d discover that their advertisers care — a lot — about:
- The subscriber who sees their ad at home flipped open on the coffee table.
- The passerby who sees their ad on the lunch counter
- The subway rider who sees their ad on the folded-over paper being read by a straphanger.
- The patient in the waiting room who happens to pick up the paper.
The challenge for the printed newspaper is simple: be compelling enough for some people to want it delivered to their home, and for others to at least make the effort to pick it up and flip through it. This isn’t about a broken business model, it’s about a broken mechanism for understanding customers’ needs.
Advertisers, like catalog companies, will pay a lot of money to get their message in front of your busy eyeballs when you’re probably thinking about something else.
Newspapers, like catalog companies, are in a terrific position to create publications that work great in print, and entirely different products that work great online.
The problem is that for years newspapers treated online like another print product, and now they’re thinking about treating their print product like it’s an unnecessary expense. (Alan Mutter’s Newsosaur blog takes a shot at the economics of that argument. For more comments, see Lost Remote’s take)
Newsrooms must take the lead on this. Newspaper newsrooms haven’t focused nearly enough energy on discovering what local consumers want in a print product, and what local consumers want in an online product.
If newsrooms want journalism to survive, they must accept full responsibility for understanding these needs and being accountable for attracting audiences advertisers want.
If newsrooms can create must-pick-up print products, they’ll be able to maintain and justify the premium pricing that newspaper print ads command. If they can create compelling online products, they’ll attract the breadth and depth and scale of audience that will allow multiple tiers of revenue from low-cost to premium.
But first, they must accept full responsibility for giving people more of what they want and less of what newsrooms think they need.
UPDATE: The Christian Science Monitor announced yesterday it’s dropping print, but that’s a very unusual newspaper. And it has few, if any, of the local advertising dynamics outlined here.
(I’ve also posted this on the AIM Group’s new site, where I’m also blogging. I’ll be cross-posting some items as appropriate, and will note when that’s the case.)
Gatehouse Media has a fascinating experiment going on in Batavia, N.Y., to see what an online-only local news service might look like.
So far it looks like a blog, where each article is a blog entry, and people can add comments, and the whole thing is a long scrolling page. But The Batavian has a lot more going on. There are links to headlines from other local media, job postings, for-sale listings, photo galleries. There are many postings every day. There’s a two-person staff dedicated to the site, one for news and one for sports. Howard Owens, a Gatehouse exec who also is a prolific blogger (when the spam doesn’t wear him down) is acting as the site’s publisher. Philip Anselmo is news editor and Brian Hillabush is sports editor.
Gatehouse’s newspapers all have websites, and some are very advanced in both audience strategies and business strategies. This is Gatehouse’s first freestanding site, and it’s going up against the existing paper in Batavia, The Daily News.
Hillabush’s first day on the job was yesterday. He’s eager to get the community engaged in helping shape the site. “The really innovative thing we’re doing (with sports) is getting the coaches involved in writing their own blogs,” he said by phone today. “You kind of lose something when a coach calls the newspaper after a game and a reporter writes the story… I really think this is going to take off.”
The new guy knows what he’s talking about. He was a sports writer at The Daily News for eight years and in local radio in Batavia before that. He knows every coach in the area. He plans cover 3-4 games a week, writing stories and shooting photos and video. Plus recruiting those coaches.
Why jump from the daily newspaper to a startup like The Batavian? “Howard’s a big reason why I took this job,” Hillabush said.
Owens is a vocal (and controversial) proponent of just-do-it news video and community engagement. And The Batavian gives him a live testbed. Owens covered two fires with simple video cameras, one in Corfu and a fatal fire in Batavia. Heck, just today (9/11/08), he posted five news items.
“We picked Batavia because it’s a neat, vibrant town,” Owens says in his blog. “It’s close to our home office; and the daily newspaper there was doing nothing on the web.” Note: “doing nothing on the web” these days often is code for “not doing much on the web.” Here the phrase is literal. The Daily News site is more like a postcard than a brochure, and the copyright says 2003. Which will make Batavia all the more interesting to watch. Will the Daily News step up? Will The Batavian draw its audience? Or create a new audience?
For all The Batavian’s ambition, there isn’t much sense of an equally ambitious business model, no doubt a combination of the current bloggish design and the priority to build a viable audience. That could be an even tougher experiment: if there’s a new model for engaging a community’s residents, could there also be a new model for engaging its businesses?