Newspaper Survival Tactics: Context And Substance

Newspapers and the substantive journalism that has long been their hallmark are fighting for survival--and they might just be able to help each other. Newspapers can reinforce their own value online by reinventing and delivering more of the contextual analysis and in-depth reporting that's all too scarce in the slapdash interactive marketplace.

It is a race against newspapers' plummeting subscription and advertising dollars, and consumers' diminished expectations for pithy information. There are no quick fixes.

Newspapers are making a valiant effort to embrace change and utilize the advantages of online existence to provide richer, deeper coverage. Trading their economically ineffective physical plants and tangible paper is unavoidable and disruptive. The Capital Times and other newspapers can provide templates for managing the change. Growing numbers are notably straddling print and online by doing more than sharing the same content or becoming a general news aggregator.



Ambitious industry research efforts, such the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next, evaluate and provide case studies of new business models that are beginning to generate growth. Even as their online transformation continues, newspapers can reintroduce their distinctive, substantive reporting and information management for a new age. Helping consumers to fall in love with words and analytical thinking is a worthy challenge--given that the domination of interactive mobility will thrive more on images. Make real reporting and enterprising analysis king; eliminate all the redundant minutiae. Make it cool being intellectual and thought-provoking.

The key logistical challenge will be re-acclimating editorial, production, advertising and other business personnel. The key strategic challenge will be creating a must-see destination of intellectually engaging content that matches target readers with advertisers.

Elevating news content above commodity status by creating value with meaningful context and analysis does not have to be an exercise in futility. It can be a unique refuge from the bombardment of quick-fix news--and a boon to advertisers willing to pay a premium for association. Integrate enticing uses of interactivity--beyond the usual pedestrian applications--and it becomes a deeper dive into information that consumers can use.

The reality check begins with making editorial decisions based on reader relevance. The surface has barely been scratched on providing them with new tools to analyze and explore what news means to them. The elements of search, social networking and ecommerce can be developed in enterprising ways that makes information more personal.

• Make consumer-centric contextual information mobile and universal. It has to play on portable phone-sized screens and be reliably manageable anywhere in their world. Transport some of your best content to where consumers are, such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Help to transform some of the innocuous chatter into a constructive exchange of ideas and information.

• Get over demographic hangups. The current political year has rendered encouraging evidence that younger consumers are passionate participants in critical matters. This momentum can be used to introduce dynamic ways to serve useable news.

• It's about quality, not quantity. Journalists who push the news envelope with much-needed context and challenging insights must be treated as valuable assets. While fretting over the movie and music piracy, we are allowing our intellectual capital to slip out of the populace circles.

• Savvy marketing and repositioning means understanding, respecting and using the new rules of virtual consumption. Use digital dynamics to your advantage. Promote it as being special. Then price it that way on a unique set of metrics.

• Select a particular focus and vertical special-interest categories, and hit them hard. Being all things to all people on the Web is not nearly as effective as becoming a must-read for consumers and advertisers who share the same interests.

• The only way to reclaim lost turf is to reinvent it and to do it better. The success of Craigslist has come at the expense of newspapers that virtually forfeited their crucial classified ad business.

• Monetize the community connections to become hyper local before they permanently slip away. Newspapers and television stations are fast losing their grip on this advantage, per Borrell Associates. The Web claims the largest share--44%--of the $8.5 billion local online ad market, the share newspapers had three years ago before falling to 33%. Ad spending at newspapers and their online editions fell another 10% in the fourth quarter, although online ad spend jumped 14% in the 13th consecutive quarter of double-digit growth.

• The fascination with personalities so popular on the Web and in magazines can be mined in new ways. The "10 questions for..." and five minutes of streaming video with some cyber celeb is just a start. Real-time electorate participation in political debates is a way forward. Use technology to make connections and stimulate inspired thinking. What good is a contact flood of news and information until it has unique meaning to individuals and companies?

• Turn to the Google search monster that killed Web subscriptions (remember NY TimesSeclect?) for the tools to connect readers and advertisers to your more substantive Web product.

• Avoid becoming an aggregator of headlines and story snippets--that's not journalism. Mandate original content, enterprising analysis and reader engagement. Hire smart, inventive journalists and analysts--and give them a worthy interactive launch pad. • Don't necessarily rely on Sam Zell's reinvention of the Tribune Co. or Rupert Murdoch's reinvention of Dow Jones for answers. The art of expeditiously phasing out legacy news organizations and reinvesting what is best about newspapers and substantive reporting in the digital age has a long way to perfection. But the company couldn't be better.

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