Lost In Translation
What is the value of an established print media name? Let's take a simple test to find out. Which of these URLs do you recognize?
For those of you who claim to recognize the first two, you are either lying, or you have lived in both Iowa and Arizona, as I have. While both the Des Moines Register and the East Valley Tribune are print newspaper companies that have been in existence for decades, you've probably never heard of them or visited their Web site unless you live in those metropolitan areas. Even if you do live in those regions, the chance that you've never visited one of these sites increases as your age bracket skews younger.
Ask any college-age or 20something man or woman where they get their news/information/gossip, and he or she is increasingly likely to cite a pure-play Internet site like DrudgeReport.com, PerezHilton.com, a favorite news aggregation site or RSS feeds before listing a local print media outlet.
While national newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today are growing, local newspaper sites are loosing market share to pure-play Internet sites like Google, Yahoo, AOL, and MSN, as well as aggregation sites like newsvine.com and topix.net, as reported in a 2007 study from The Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.
This raises a perplexing question for local newspapers, which are more and more reliant on their Web sites for advertising revenue to either supplement or replace decreasing revenues from their offline product. Does a traditional media brand name (i.e. Seattle Times, Kansas City Star, etc.) provide significant value to an online audience, or does its value get lost in translation somewhere between the printed word and the 19" flat-screen you're currently staring at?
As circulation rates and ad revenues drop across the board in the newspaper industry (ad revenues in 2007 plunged 9.4% to $42 billion compared to 2006), the brand recognition of the local newspaper drops along with it. It has also proven increasingly ineffective to try to apply the traditional offline business model to an online news site.
Gone are the days when the local newspaper was the self-appointed guardian and exclusive voice of news and information for the masses. In traditional media, the journalist and the media outlet handed down the news to the public and that was typically where the story ended, with the exception of the filtered and approved-for-print Letter to the Editor that might follow in a day or two.
In the Internet age, news is now a "shared enterprise between its producer and its consumer, according to Jonah Peretti, founding partner of The Huffington Post. To be successful, Internet news and media require an ongoing conversation, multiple methods of engagement, the addition of user-generated content and a wide variety of opinions and views.
Today's savvy online consumers also want control over what they read. They want to customize their entire experience for their personal preference. Not only do they want to choose the stories that are relevant to them, they want to modify the layout of the site and the navigation to suit their needs, as they can on sites like newsvine.com, topix.net and netvibes.com.
In an effort to recapture some of their local readers on the Web, newspapers might consider abandoning their traditional print brand online, reinventing an entirely new media brand for the Web. This allows a great deal of autonomy to operate -- much the same as an Internet company, not a newspaper company with a Web site.
The challenge that lies ahead is whether or not traditional newspaper companies can become agile enough to adapt to this new paradigm. Can they leverage their most important asset, which is their depth of news and information at the local level, and deliver it in a way that engages and interacts with readers, giving them more control over the experience?
Simply relying on their offline brand recognition to draw readers to their Web site will prove to be a losing strategy as readers continue to gravitate towards pure-play Internet sites that cater to the preference of an ever-savvier online audience.
Can newspapers adapt quickly enough to remain relevant -- or are they doomed to become this century's version of the telegraph machine?