Part II: Newspapers Must Evolve…and Right Now


Welcome to the second part of this creature that might be an essay. I began it yesterday with Part I: Is News Dying Along with Newspapers? Part II should, rightly, be subtitled, How a Smart-Ass with 14 years Experience in Newspapers Thinks Newspapers Have to Evolve . . . and Survive.

Look, you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: This is crunch time for print journalism. The old ways are dying, but newspapermen (and -women) are reluctant to give up their valued traditions. Hence, I believe, the major conflict in newspaper offices today: The CEOs and managers simply do not understand how to face the future. The options available to them are being clouded by a host of critical short-term problems which not only demand immediate action, but they obscure a view of any promise that might be in the future.

The news business is always reactionary; content depends on things that happen, every day, and we report it; our business models change as customer needs and demographics change.

At least, they’re supposed to.

But we’re in a period of massive upheaval now, and change has to come immediately — and be radical. In short, any change has to be big, it has to be fast, and it will by its very nature go against the grain of every tenet newspaper people believe. The industry cannot afford to act traditionally right now — instead it has to take some chances, make some gambles, and — GASP! — be innovative.

We have to create our own future as much as we can. News reporting, itself, is reactionary. But the business side cannot afford that philosophy any longer. The business side has to come to grips with a fast-moving, dynamic future . . . one that, frankly, is already here.

This means a lot of change and a lot of turmoil. It means that the business side is going to have to keep an eye on the basic problems every newspaper faces, as well as the ever-increasing competition; and if you don’t remember how I define all that, I’ll repeat it from a previous blog post:

The cost of newsprint is ever-increasing. General readership is dwindling. Its remaining readers and subscribers, generally over 40, are dying off day by day, and today’s youth — everybody under 40 — are turning elsewhere for news and information. The Times-Dispatch’s competition isn’t Style or the Richmond Free Press; it’s everything: television shows, radio, books, soccer practice, church, shopping, going to movies, dining out, surfing the Web, having sex, driving in rush hour, washing the dog, texting, Twittering, Facebooking, going to the National, vacationing, the Skins game…every damn thing is competition.

So: what to do?

A friend at the Times-Dispatch emailed me a few weeks ago and asked me what I think we had to do to save newspapers, and I’ll tell you what I told him.

We can’t save them all.

That’s it, bottom line. It’s a hard truth to face, but the shakeout that is inevitable is going to thin the herd substantially. Seriously. Many more than you think right now. Hardest hit, I believe, are going to be the metropolitan daily newspapers, of which the Richmond Times-Dispatch is a perfect example.

The reason why is simple. Fragmentation.

Over the years, with each new generation of technological advances in communication, the general audience — for everything — has gradually fragmented. Go to the magazine racks at Barnes & Noble or Borders. There are no copies of Life or Look (remember Look?). Offhand I can’t think of a single magazine that caters to a general audience other than Reader’s Digest. (And I would argue that RD is NOT general interest; no one reads it unless they’re fifty plus, right-wingers, and they keep stacks of them in the bathroom. They have a definite target audience, with about a five- to fifteen-minute reading threshold before they have to flush.)

General interest magazines are failing — and have been failing for years — because their audience is fragmenting. The audiences (plural, now) are turning to magazines and shows and websites that cater to their interests, including news outlets. This is one important and overlooked reason the readership of the Times-Dispatch and other metro-dailies is dropping off rapidly.

The product isn’t interesting to contemporary America.

That’s a harsh concept to face, but newspapers must come to grips with it, and now. Newspapers can no longer afford to be all things for all people, when most of the audience in their circulation areas actively choose NOT to read the product.

Instead, to survive, metro-daily newspapers are going to have to change beyond the scope of what any tradition could ever imagine:

1. Physical format

Downsize the newspaper to the tabloid format, like the Village Voice or the New York Daily News. I can’t guarantee that this will save money or not — the bean counters in the ivory towers will have to sort all this out — but talk around the RTD while I was there was that switching to tabloid would cut newsprint costs.

More importantly, the current broadsheet format of most newspapers is ubiquitous, and, therefore, not impressive to the populace. At all. It’s ignored. Dull. We’re talking about perception here. A tabloid format will probably be looked upon as innovative and interesting, new and different; not at all like the old-fashioned papers that only old people are buying, anyway.

2. Change the logo.

Seriously. Not kidding.

Fifty years ago, an old English masthead stood for something, giving the impression that the newspaper not only had substance, but it was impressive, it was dynamic; it was a rock upon which citizens could depend.

It represents exactly the opposite nowadays — that the product isn’t keeping up with the times or the new generations — and the old-fashioned logos most newspapers use have actually become liabilities. They do exactly what mastheads and logos are supposed to do — represent the newspaper in every way — but the public now perceives it in a completely opposite manner than intended.

If the public can’t be changed, then the product has to change.

3. Change the content radically.

Survey after survey tells the Marketing people that readers want more local news in the newspaper. The RTD has responded with publishing a big-headline local story, usually above the fold, every day.

It ‘s not enough.

This is going to be the biggest change the metro-dailies will have to face. It is both a content change and a philosophical change, and it is going to be both hated and highly controversial:

Metro dailies must change their content to focus 80% on local news.

And this is why: National news is regarded as free online and on television, and it is clear that readers prefer getting national and world news from those sources.

Okay then. Let them have it.

The core newspapers readers want more local news. They want it in a physical format that they can cut out and frame when their friends and family are featured.

Give it to them.

And this is what’s going to happen: people seeking national news will reject the newspaper, because they can get all the news they want online. The people wanting local news will probably be very happy. The audience may actually grow as communities are featured more and more; and instead of focusing on general interest, bigger-picture stories — which the public doesn’t want — reporters will examine the ins and outs of daily life in our tight communities.

Bottom line: journalism is a business that has to pull in revenue. Newspapers can no longer afford to give the public what they think the public needs. They have to give them what they want.

This is not a metro-daily that I particularly want to read, and I know it’s not one that most reporters want to work for. But remember the core demographics of the newspaper today: over 40, white collar, college educated, household income generally more than $75,000 annually. These people are already reading the paper, and they’re asking for more local content — why not give it to them and see if circulation increases with stories about little Bobby’s softball game, and how the local church group made quilts and raised $10,000 for malnourished African babies?

Three points newspapers have to face:

We are talking about publishing to a niche audience, not a general audience.

General interest publications are no longer viable in the marketplace.

Newspapers must adapt or die.


4. After defining your core niche, create new publications that focus on your region’s other niche audiences.

You should have heard the howls of indignation and outrage in the RTD offices when Boomer Life appeared on the stands. It was right after the RTD publisher, Tom Silvestri, brought in the high-priced guru behind the Boomer Initiative, which quite correctly identified the core Times-Dispatch audience as members of the Baby Boomer generation. The RTD was gearing up to focus on this primary audience when issue #1 of Boomer Life was suddenly available in racks at Ukrop’s and Food Lion, for free.

Imagine the journalistic body slam that shook the building.

That core audience — niche, if you will — is the RTD’s bread and butter, baby. Turning the focus toward that audience, instead of a 100% general audience, would have been a smart step. But Boomer Life was a banana peel under the RTD’s foot just about a year ago; and then this recession hit the newspaper industry like a tornado in a trailer park. Focus suddenly switched to survival.

There is a lesson, though. They were on target. Boomer Life took a little wind out of their sails, but the RTD was right to target that audience.

Now other niche audiences must be defined, and new publications must be created to cater to them. These magazines — not newsprint products, but magazines, whether free or for sale — ideally will replace and surpass the revenue lost by the paper’s changeover to a Locals’-interest
newspaper. Consider: a daily paper, a month mag for women, a monthly mag for boomers (why not?), a monthly for parents and families, a bi-weekly for central VA tourism and museums, a home and garden bimonthly . . . and accompanying websites, with both local AND national advertising, PLUS web content updated at least weekly . . .

This is a new world we’re talking about, and the Jurassic managers must evolve or . . . I think you get it.

(Why magazines, you ask? Because newspapers are considered common. Low. Magazines on glossy paper are upscale. Contemporary. Exciting. It’s all about perception, isn’t it?)

5. Sex it up.

I don’t mean to add sex and sex stories to the paper or any new magazines (however, given the number of adult shops in metro Richmond, there might be an argument for an adults-only monthly mag . . .). What I mean is: Newspaper content has to be “sexy,” as in, it has to be entertaining and has to make the public WANT to read it. The old argument that “Our news is best” or that the public needs our news just doesn’t hold up today. They have to WANT to read the paper if the RTD expects people to pay for it. Stop telling news stories in the old-fashioned, boring, highly structured ways. Be creative with the use of language. Meet your readers at their own level — not of intelligence or a reading level, but on a level of excitement, of fun, of experiencing what the world has to offer. Give articles an edge, damn it! Stop writing for pedestrians. Write for people who want to live! Give them what they want.

6. Consider a free, 100% advertising-supported model for the new Richmond Times-Dispatch.

I know it goes against everything newspaper people have stood for since time immemorial.

Get the hell over it. Do P & Ls out the ass. Swallow your pride and start thinking about surviving. Circulation will increase. The higher the circ, the higher the ad rates. That should mean more revenue, if you do it right. If.

Right?

6. Parent companies must diversify in news, non-news and non-publications areas.

NEWS: I’m thinking specifically, exploit the web. Create websites with news and articles for NATIONAL niche audiences. Stop thinking in local terms when you think about the Internet. LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE. News, showbiz news, sports news, financial news, weird news, tech news, shopping news, food news . . . each topic could have a daily-updated website, like Slate or Salon, and the pioneering news company that created this pantheon of sites (hint, hint, Media General) would be extremely well-positioned when the bottom finally drops out of the print news business within the next ten years.

And it will.

NON-NEWS: Websites with features and information, rather than just news. Game sites; opinion sites; cartoon sites. Even — now, think about the damn revenue alone, okay? — porn sites. (Time-Warner-AOL offers it in America’s hotel rooms. Should MG or any other intermeganationalcongloporation be different? Holier than thou?)

NON-PUBLICATIONS: Newspaper corporations traditionally offer news and information. What’s missing from that formula? Entertainment. Create Web content and television and YouTube and iPhone and iTunes content that is fun. Build a commercial audience. Think beyond news and think about what people want.

7. Look at basic cable.

This is my last point (thank you, I can hear the grateful sighs of relief from here). When the bottom drops out, and it will, only a handful of big newspaper companies will have the resources to create a national presence of any kind. The New York Times Co., yes. AP, yes — but they won’t. They are traditionalists who follow the rules instead of making them. Media General? Why, yes. What I’m suggesting is consider that “news” — quality news — cannot die with the slow death of newspapers.

What could, oh, say, a Media General do?

Online outlets — and outlets in whatever the next big thing will be — will need resources for news. When the news corps die, only a few will be left standing, and I predict they will all vie for dominance, offering their services to online outlets in much the same way as basic cable works today. Comcast will choose Media General; Time Warner will run with the AP; the Internet providers will pay for the news services, and then pass the costs on to the consumer. It will be only pennies, in the long run, to each consumer, so it’s just a raise in “basic cable,” if you will, and there will be little outcry. But it’s serious revenue for the news corps that make it that far. And Richmond’s own Media General is ideally situated, with all their sources of news. If they were to start thinking now, placing reporters and mini-bureaus in each state, even internationally, creating a digital infrastructure that would be able to report and publish on all their various and newly-created websites . . .

But this is all conjecture, though, isn’t it? Not a damn thing is going to happen until the bowtie-wearing dinosaurs in the newspapers across the country finally pull their fat asses off the toilet, throw the paper on the bathroom floor, look around and say, “Something’s got to be done.”

But will something be done? Let me close with this story. About five years ago, I was asked to be on a task force at the RTD. We had a list of questions to answer — each task force would pick one. As I remember it, we ended up with the question no one wanted . . . and I jumped at it. I will paraphrase, for my exact memory is fifty years worth of faulty: What can we as a newspaper do to increase circulation and advertising revenue . . . without changing anything that we are currently doing?

I laughed, and then we got to work. And our conclusions were much what you’d expect. If you’re doing almost everything wrong, you can’t expect to succeed without change.

Once the report was turned in, I asked one of the directors at the RTD, a friend, what was happening with it. I did this once a week, I think. Over a month later, she finally admitted to me, “You may as well stop asking. They didn’t like it. It’s quashed.”

So . . .

Will something be done?

—-

Thanks for bearing with me so far. Now, please let me ask you a favor. No, I’m not asking for donations through PayPal. I’ll never do that. I blog for myself and I do not beg. BUT . . . If you enjoyed the posts about newspapers (and believe me, I’ll continue them), if you were entertained or intrigued at all; if you think I have any skill as a writer (or even as a chimp who can type), I ask that if you have a line on any jobs in media, marketing, advertising or writing, please pass the information on to me. I’ve needed a job since before Christmas; but more importantly I also have a bunch of skilled and talented friends in the communications fields who need jobs, too. We were all fired or laid off from the Times-Dispatch — we did our jobs very well, and we all kick ass. Send me an email and I’ll send you some resumes, including mine.

Thanks everybody.

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3 thoughts on “Part II: Newspapers Must Evolve…and Right Now

  1. I think you are missing one key element- the nature of the Times Dispatch’s editorial ideology.Its ultra-conservative, but its not even well-written conservative thinking. Its full of bluster and hypocrisy that’s embarrassing for the whole region. When Ross McKenzie and other dinasaurs rail and thunder against taxes and ‘liberal special interests’ and yet sing praises and extoll the downtown corporate welfare white elephants, whether it be art centers or baseball stadiums, they just re-empahsize how out of touch they are with local citizens. Certain local corporate leaders get the soft promotional touch while more outspoken community leaders get ignored or worse, villified. Do they think readers don’t notice their ouright bias? Its simply insulting and a major turn-off.

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  2. Hey Anon! Thanks for the comment. I didn’t miss the editorial element — it’s just that my post is about change, and there are some dinosaurs that just won’t adapt. Some bow ties will never come off!Also, believe it or not, I’d estimate that perhaps 60% of the RTD subscribers agree with the conservative editorials. That’s just my estimate — I don’t know that for sure. I do know that we have subscribers in Hampton Roads who hate their own papers because they’re “too liberal.”Of course, we also have ultra-conservative subscribers who say the RTD is liberal…Which again goes to show another reason why general interest publications are not surviving today: everybody wants their own point of view reflected. Hence the rise of niche publications…

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  3. No, no, you miss the point. Its not the ideological choice as much as how they choose to represent their supposed ideology. If the TD had good CONSISTENT conservative editorials (or good liberal editorials), I would be more likely to appreciate it. But they don’t. They are just a bunch of anti-Clintonista whiner/corporate sell-out hypocrites who twist in the wind.

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