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.