Newspapers, you want my ad dollars? I want some changes!

19 Feb

I never thought I’d actually watch the death of modern newspapers. But the bell is tolling.

Actually it’s a freight train whistle that’s been sounding for many years; it’s just getting louder with the economic Doppler Effect. And advertising is playing the role of Snidely Whiplash, tying newspapers to the tracks.

  Not2So here’s a modest plan to save daily journalism. Yes, I know Walter Issacson recently offered his plan on the cover of Time magazine. But telling people they need to pay for content is a sad and tired plea emanating from the land of desperation.It sounds an awful lot like the silliness I heard years ago about Internet users having “social contract” to engage with banner ads if we want web sites to be free. I must have missed the negotiations part where I agreed to that.

But we’re talking about newspapers, not web sites, kind of, so here’s my four point plan.

  1. Follow the lead of Gillette and Verizon
  2. Tell me why, not what
  3. Get hyper local
  4. Personalize, personalize, personalize

Lets start with a splash of reality. Advertisers would rather spend their money just about anywhere but the local newspaper. I have been at the table as millions and millions of advertising dollars are divided up. And not once, never have planners said “This is a powerful plan that really keys off local newspapers.”

So lets take a look at my harebrained idea.

Stop selling dead trees.
Papers can’t tell me how many people read today’s edition, how long they spent with it, what pages they looked at or how many people shared that copy.

Newspapers have to embrace technology at their most fundamental level, the printing press. Get rid of it. Just as Gillette and Verizon have learned to give away razors and cell phones in order to sell the razor blades or data plans, newspapers have to move beyond ink on dead trees. Newspapers have to give every reader an electronic device like the Kindle, then sell them the daily refill of content.

Currently the Kindle sells for $359. Let’s pretend newspapers are too inept to negotiate a bulk discount. If a metropolitan paper, say my old paper The Dallas Morning News, were to give away a half million that’s a $179.5 million dollar investment. Shuttering and selling off its massive presses will more than offset the investment.

Look, that phone Verizon gives you for free costs several hundred dollars. There’s a reason you sign a two-year contract in exchange. Newspapers will have to learn the same model.

Stop trying to tell me what happened.
“I can get all my news free online,” you say. True, this is why newsrooms have to invest in quality journalists, not just the cheapest trained typist they can hire from J-School. If a story can’t answer why, or what the implications are, then it is no better than the 30-second sound bite on the local TV news. Go deep and make it meaningful.

With the instant delivery capabilities given to subscribers via our free reader, newspapers have to define their place in the food chain. Don’t fight to be the bottom feeder. Let TV stations, their websites and blogs break the news.

Stories that take a step back from the insanity and provide depth and perspective have a much longer shelf life.

Get local, really local.
Define whatever your circulation target is, then saturate it with coverage. Use your reporters to cover the most important things, but then open the doors for anyone to contribute coverage of news in their neighborhood.

The difference between a blog and my newspaper are the standards of journalism. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a trained journalist to report back on the park board meeting.

Encourage bloggers to submit their stories, offer micro payments based on readership. But then subject those pieces to editing and fact checking. In the process you’ll elevate the craft of citizen journalism.

Give me what I want, whatever it is.
You have put a powerful device in my hands. Use your expertise in editing to make it exactly what I want. I love hockey, but could care less about basketball. My sports section is ordered accordingly.

Ask me what neighborhood I live in and you can prioritize coverage. If I tell you want street I live on you can focus coverage like a laser beam.

Let’s say I want to know whats happening in my former hometowns of Peoria, Knoxville and Pittsburgh. For a nominal fee you’ll be happy to add syndicated feeds from those publications.

And if you do all that, publishers you now have a priority place at the table with advertisers. If a national advertiser wants run of press, you’ll be happy to accept their money for a fixed number of exposures, and not a single exposure more.

If the cleaners down the street wants to advertise, you’ll be able to define street by street which readers will get that ad. Of course that precision will cost more.

And then there’s the Valhalla of advertising. If you get me to share what I am shopping for, well you get the idea.

Publishers you can scoff if you want. But all of this is going to happen, you can lead the way or watch it all from the empty corridors of your failed empires.

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