DISPATCH OF THE DAY — June 12, 2012 — Thoughts on the future of newspapers
A story in todays Star Tribune about the Rochester Post-Bulletin consolidating some of its operations with its parent company in Illinois stimulated thoughts on my pet theories of how to “save” newspapers (http://www.startribune.com/business/158597695.html).
There is no doubt hard copy newspaper circulation has been declining across the nation. The decline began with the advert of 24 hour news channels and talk radio and has accelerated dramatically in the last few years thanks to the internet and its ability to deliver the news people are looking for. If you are a sports nuts, or a political junkie there are all sorts of outlets that cater to you. Web sites like the Drudge Report have replaced the New York Times as the driver of what news is covered. If you think “mainstream” news is biased one way of the other, you can find news sources that give you the truth you are looking for
More importantly than circulation is the dramatic decreases in ad revenue. The bread and butter for newspaper advertising was the classified section and car ads. Now those sections have largely disappeared or declined dramatically compared to their former self. For example, who actually looks for a job or a car in the paper anymore — no one.
Many newspapers response to the change in the market place has been to make cuts. In New Orleans the Times-Picayune has gone from a daily paper to three days a week. Locally the St. Paul Pioneer Press has shrunk the size of the paper as well as dramatically reduced the number of pages. Arguably solutions like these merely delay the inevitable.
In order to survive daily newspapers need to make some fundamental changes to re-engage the consumer so that they see true value in newspapers. Obviously newspapers must replace lost ad revenue and that means increasing circulation. So what do they do?
#1 — Cover more local news — a lot more. And more in-depth. Long national or world stories should be a rare exception (I know it’s easy to take a wire story to fill space, but it’s a waste to the reader because to them most of these stories are old news — people do look to newspapers for “thoughtful” and more in-depth pieces, but only on things they don’t already know about). The internet and the news channels give everyone all the national and world news they can handle. Give them what they cannot get anywhere else – give them the local story (even TV cannot do the “in-depth” local story — newspapers onn this territory).
#2 — Go to a tabloid style one section format (news on the front, sports on the back and everything else in between). The Pioneer Press’s two page “sections” are embarrassing.
#3 — Be provocative and less predictable on the opinion page . . . . the Star Tribune is predictably liberal and predictable is boring. This is a business people — if you want people to read the opinion page have writers whose writing will grab readers by the lapels and shake’em up. Instead of being part of a newspapers “civic” duty to have an opinion page, it can be a driver of circulation. For example, have prominent columnists on the left and right going at it hammer and tongs everyday. Make people want to buy the paper to “see what happens next”.
#4 — If it bleeds it leads . . . more crime news, more local human interest, etc.(take a lesson from newspapers in the 1930′s, 40′s and 50′s). Again, this is a business and you if you want people to read your thought-provoking piece on property taxes you have to get them to pick up the paper to begin with.
#5 — More sports and entertainment news, with strong emphasis on the local. Both Twin Cities dailies do a good job with sports . . . expand that philosophy to the rest of the paper.
#6 — Don’t obsess on the internet. Put up a solid product and keep trying to grow the ad revenue, but don’t charge for content because the moment you do the consumer will go elsewhere.
In short, keep it simple, keep it compact, and make people want to pick it up. Boring newspapers, especially competing with so many other news and entertainment resources, have no chance at long-term survival.