On Saving Newspapers: A Search Marketer’s Rant

Posted in Convergence

Der Bund
Creative Commons License photo credit: lorenzwalthert

In 1996 while employed as a CBS affiliate’s Creative Director, our team built the community’s first television station website and started publishing daily news show scripts. It was pretty amazing  stuff. The white paper to station management to procure our initiative’s budget, was that “broadcast television could become minimized or obsolete in light of changing publishing paradigms” and that the station should hedge its bet by “targeting newspaper customers now” by early adoption of the Internet which was “going to become the millennial printing press.”

I moved on from that position in 1998 for the opportunity to found the interactive unit of a venerable Minnesota advertising agency, now Westmoreland Flint. Then was a radically less diversified media world comprised of print channels, network & cable TV, radio and billboards.

One of Westmoreland’s clients was our fair city’s 100+ year old daily paper, the Duluth News Tribune, owned at the time by Knight Ridder. You’ll recall that bandwidth was nascent, 24k modems the norm and Internet penetration only fledgling. However, there was already plenty of free news online to keep early adopters from buying the physical paper. Subscription numbers had already started to decline and it was becoming obvious to some of us that the newspaper industry was already screwed.

The Completion Backwards Principle
The irony was stark. Research clearly indicated the public’s perception, of which news outlet covered news with the most immediacy, was exactly reversed. News consumers believed that radio was the most nimble, always first to the scene. TV was perceived as the next most real-time followed by newspapers. Ironically, any measure of newsroom size, editorial prowess and sheer ability to mine and process news proved that newspapers had the most depth by far, followed by television then radio …exactly the opposite of reality.

The print paper industry never recovered from its failure to leverage superior news gathering capability to turn public perception to reality. By the time they figured it out, newsroom capacity was being diminished by sharp shooting budget whores from corporate, to keep staff cuts up with dive bombing subscription and ad revenue. Sadly it was too late. Algorithmic search engines like Overture, Yahoo and Google had already grabbed the cheese by branding search services that truly were the most immediate meta-sources. Oops.

Early Search Marketer Meets Fatal Newspaper Myopia
I’ll never forget meeting the DNT publisher to present our agency’s recommendations, and how disappointing her lukewarm and nearsighted response. That crisp autumn morning in 1998 we told the Duluth News Tribune to purchase an Avid or Media 100 digital video editor and send every photographer out every day with consumer grade hi-8 video cameras. “Beat broadcast at their own game” we wrote in bold bullet points. Having been inside the television industry, it was plain to see that the broadcast model was vulnerable.

That white paper discussed the vanishing barriers to becoming a “broadcast news hub” and how superiority in news gathering force would win the day if newspapers took action quickly, now-while they still had the might. “It’s no longer required that we procure FCC licenses or build multi million dollar broadcast towers.” Bandwidth is coming in the form of ISDN and DSL.” “Cameras and editing workstations are relatively inexpensive and, in the future, viewers won’t always trust glossy presentations.” We recommended that they “take broadcast on directly, immediately and establish the DNT as the most immediate hyper-local news source on the Internet.”

The second component we suggested was right out of the TV station marketing playbook: “proof of performance PR campaigns.” We said “when you are the first to the fire and publish video, pictures and audio (which could be transmitted by phone patch live) stake that position out in the marketplace by publicizing afterwards. Broadcast TV and radio had successfully parlayed the proof of performance campaigns into market share for years.

The approach was so easy. When first to a news event, CBS 3 was “working for you,” Johnny and Jane on the spot with crucial real time information to serve the public. Newspapers didn’t see it. The Duluth News Tribune and Knight Ridder were dead wrong. Now they’re just dead.

Enter 2010, The Age of Reckoning
So what now? Sadly, newspapers are going out of business right and left. What possible new approaches could be considered to consolidate and grow paper readership to more sustainable results? Being a search marketer, if I was publisher of the New York Times or Minneapolis Star & Tribune– these are the types of radical ideas I’d consider:

1-Stop Giving Away News For Free
This one’s easy. Newspapers are going out of business because middlemen like Google claim a high percentage of ad revenue by current models. On-web page ad sales and AdSense style affiliate marketing simply can’t support newspapers. That’s one of the reasons so many papers have gone out of business. Only allow story headlines and excerpts to index in Google.

Give free online subscriptions to those receiving physical paper delivery.  These physical subscribers are a paper’s best friend. Bundle Sunday delivery, usually a larger audience than weekday, with online subscriptions. Make a big PR deal out of it. Sell online-only subscriptions for 1/3 the cost of physical delivery. This tact is a risk, no doubt. However at the end of the day if readers won’t pay for content by some model, newspapers won’t survive anyway. Gradually encourage readers to transition from paper to wholly virtual goods.

2- Aggressively Open More Channels Live From The Field
Send all field reporters and camera men/woman out with cameras & broadcast real-time. Take national outlets like CNN on directly hyper-locally. In most cities the local paper’s newsroom staff still outnumbers those at television and radio significantly.

CNN sure can’t be at the Duluth City Council Meeting yet thousands of readers want to know what happened. Google has little hyper-local presence and most would-be community news blogs spew irresponsible crap that the public won’t trust. Publish audio and video first from the scene.

Newspaper reporters can offer social experiences to give readers unparalleled access to news and news makers by social channels like Twitter. Be there first, publish first and then do what newspapers have always done best–offer the deepest detail and analysis after the fact to support its ability to be immediate.

3-Beat Search Engines at Their Own Game
Search engines win by indexing newspapers’ content without compensating them satisfactorily. Take them on at their own game by meta-indexing search engines and offer readers the ability to quickly drill deeply into aggregated multi- search engine results framed in the newspapers’ SERPs. Instead of allowing the search engines to profit obscenely from content they did not pay to create, piggyback on top of their free services to spooge revenue from them.

Create localized search engines that index only local content, including what the search engines index. There is a well-traveled legal road giving search engines the right to index content they did not create. For some screwed up quirk of history, the index now has more financial value in society than the actual content. Change the game by offering a more focused local-index, leading with the paper’s own content.

4-Create the “Social Media Editor” Position
Move the newspaper’s Community Manager position to the newsroom rather than the marketing department. Leverage existing channels instead of building expensive applications. When school is canceled from a nasty snow storm, send the alerts out by Facebook and Twitter. Publicize reporters LinkedIn profiles in the print paper and actively encourage readers to connect. There are many other tactics which come to mind easily.

Make the process of gathering and sharing news a more social experience and get readers involved in conversations, closer to the source before stories are published. Offer interactions with news makers and reporters from the field. Publish notable and salient tweets to invite next-gen news consumers to the table. Offer better search of archived “live” events. Publish the best of them in the physical paper.

5-Brand by Proof of Performance
When the paper is first to the event, broadcasts by real-time channels and involves readers to serve the community, use the track record to brand the paper. Proof of performance marketing has worked for broadcast outlets for decades. It’s astounding that the PR/marketing model is not used to advertise millennial real-time channels.

Newspapers have always had the edge in gathering local news. Tragic industry misreactions to the Internet’s emergence nearly sealed their fate in the mid-to-late 90’s. The results might have been different if newspapers had never allowed search engines to index their content for free in the first place. To this writer’s mind, the solutions have not changed all that much since the mid 90’s, though the print news industry has sure dug themselves a deep hole.

Bottom line: Local news gathered by local reporters has a lot of value in this world. We’d hate to see newspapers go the rest of the way towards becoming only artifacts and memories.

  • Erika Bennett

    This is all SPOT on. Combine the death of newspapers with the fact that nobody knows how to search precisely and they trust everything that they read online, and we’ll have a stupid stupid world. Idiocracy and then some.

    I’m a reviewer for state-wide information literacy standards for elementary kids at the moment. That’s the only glimmer of hope I’ve seen in a while.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Erika: “we’ll have a stupid stupid world, ” LOL, that IS the result of people believing everything the read online. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Andrew Shotland

    I gave a talk to a newspaper’s digital group once. They asked me what would I do if I inherited their newspaper? Half-jokingly I said I would redo their homepage as a news aggregator and focus on how I could exploit the strength of their local domain in search to attract the highest CPM clicks I could find. All big media co’s (or perhaps I should say “all big shrinking big media cos”) should be aware of how they can use search to beat Google and everybody else at their own game.

  • brad

    I love it.

    I’m still not positive that newspapers need to sell subscriptions (although, I did write an article about newspapers and google news: http://www.bgtheory.com/blog/the-counter-argument-for-newspapers-why-newspapers-should-opt-out-of-google-news-or-force-rev-share-agreements/ ).

    A newspaper could be a local aggregator of content and reposition themselves as a community portal; not just a news portal.

    This is a half-baked idea still; but think if a newspaper was the Yelp + Shop Local + Local Search + Eventful + etc of a community? While the articles still bring in the eyeballs (which is necessary for usage), other areas of the site can help with the monetization.

  • Tom Wilkowske

    Excellent post, Marty. I was one of those cube drones (a copy editor) at said newspaper when this bald bespectacled Internet Wonder Boy came striding into the newsroom (that would have been you ;-)) I echo your observations and add a few of my own. Newspapers spent most of the past decade trying to figure out how to maintain profits, but also maintain the large infrastructure befitting a manufacturing industry — remember, newspapers are a thing that is manufactured every day.

    They don’t need all those machines and employees anymore, but they’re still maintaining the infrastructure. Without a physical product half the employees, or more, go away. It’s also tempting, in retrospect, to point to a particular event/decision and say, this was pivotal. But perhaps it’s a little too neat. For example, there’s plenty of evidence supporting the argument that “the beginning of the end” was in the 70s, when newspapers started allowing inexpensive inserts to be stuffed in their newspapers instead of requiring advertisers to buy ads in the paper (ROP, “run of the paper” in old school terms). The proof there is on newspaper microfilm for all to see.

    I’m hoping a nonprofit, community based, sponsor-supported, crowd-funded journalism model will work. Otherwise, I think I’ll start building guitars.

  • Maggie

    There is something so cozy about reading an actual paper with your morning coffee and it’s probably something that wont go away for a long time because of it’s ties with nostalgia.

    Unfortunately all we’ll be left with is the Times, Washington Post & crappy fluffy USA Today when the papers which SHOULD last are the local news papers. The media will even more so guide the American public’s perception of the world.

    Local news does what large conglomerate news can’t- they EXIST in the area they report on.

    There are so many problems with paper and the internet. We will continue to see the papers fight this losing battle.

    Truth be told, as you said Marty, they saw it coming and didn’t do much to safeguard their strengths.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Tom Wilkowske: No there’s some food for thought why don’t ya’…

    ““the beginning of the end” was in the 70s, when newspapers started allowing inexpensive inserts to be stuffed in their newspapers instead of requiring advertisers to buy ads in the paper (ROP, “run of the paper” in old school terms). The proof there is on newspaper microfilm for all to see.”

    That’s such a reasonable way to look at it. Thanks for sharing with our readers.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @maggie: That’s SO romantic :). Actually I’ll take my blackberry anywhere to read the “paper.” That’s why it’s important to clean my phone with alcohol screen wipes often.

  • Jake

    Excellent, insightful analysis. As a former print news reporter and ongoing proponent of reliable information, the erosion of the industry is disheartening to say the least. I believe that (reputable) community journalism can and will survive in some shape and form. Hopefully, those trying to make it happen can incorporate your search insights. I personally have mixed opinion about paid online subscription. Doesn’t ad revenue still trump paid circ? if you need the circ numbers (or page views) to justify premium cost for ad placement, doesn’t that put you in a catch-22 as a publisher? I suppose that’s the old model of thinking. Anyway, thanks again.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Jake: “Doesn’t ad revenue still trump paid circ?” Great question. Both are declining. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and it’s great to have you here in our community.