Alan Mutter is a distinguished journalist and former senior editor of the San Francisco Chronicle who left newspapering in 1988 for a career in business. In 2005, he began a prescient blog warning the industry about the coming dangers of the digital age. With newspapers across the country now closing, going bankrupt and slashing reporting staffs, Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur has become a must-read for journalism professionals, media analysts and news junkies alike. Given the interest Calbuzz readers expressed after our recent post on the decline of newspapers, we asked Mutter for his thoughts on what papers might do to save themselves. He responded with this agenda of practical advice, adapted from a recent post on his blog.
By Alan D. Mutter
Calbuzz Media Correspondent
Newspapers should do everything they can to sustain a profitable print business as long as they can to fund the development of a diversified portfolio of media-agnostic publishing brands. While it is fine for them to produce papers (ideally in outsourced production facilities), they should be equally open to exploiting web, mobile and other delivery platforms. The only factor that should matter is whether the medium is profitable.
Newspapers should leverage their content-creation and marketing resources to create cost-effectively produced niche products geared to carefully selected audiences attracting a sufficiently large group of advertisers to assure commercial success. Newspapers that find it unprofitable to publish on Mondays or Tuesdays (the weakest days for ad demand) should endeavor to develop new weekly niche products to replace them. They may or may not carry the flagship newspaper’s brand.
Newspapers have to abandon their all-but-exclusive dependence on display and classified advertising in favor of modern interactive formats than enable marketers to efficiently target customers on a pay-per-acquisition basis. The new media should include, but not be limited to, contextual advertising, search advertising and Yellow Pages-style directories. Newspapers should be leaders, not followers, in deploying (but not building!) advertising-delivery systems targeted to the demographics, expressed preferences and behavior of consumers.
Because the revenues associated with cost-per-acquisition advertising are going to be lower than the print and online rates typically charged by newspapers, publishers will have to sell advertising to far more small and medium advertisers than they historically have done. Because the value of those orders will be smaller than the schedules purchased by large advertisers, newspapers will have to develop efficient inside sales teams, rather than making the costly in-person sales calls they favored in the past. Telephone sales can be readily outsourced, affording significant cost savings in many cases.
Publishers also can reduce their sales expenses by developing Google-style systems that empower merchants to create, buy and pay for advertising without human intervention. To get there from here, newspapers will have to invest in acquiring (but not building!) the systems to support such services. They also will have to market aggressively their do-it-yourself ad services to both customers and potential customers.
Newspapers should become interactive media consultants, providing content-creation and marketing services to their client base. This would include everything from producing videos and blogs for customers to managing their search-engine optimization and keyword advertising campaigns on third-party sites.
The unlimited distribution of free content has to stop. While teaser snippets may be offered to strategically whet the interest of casual readers who can be turned into paying customers, newspaper companies must reassert their right to be paid for the content they create. It makes no sense to focus on driving page views when banner ad rates are deteriorating because advertisers favor targeted interactive formats whose results can be verified and measured.
With generic news and information freely available on the web, the only way newspapers can successfully charge for content is by creating unique and valuable information. To do this, they have to adequately staff their newsrooms. Starving this vital operation will be strategically disastrous, because weak content will turn off loyal readers and repel new ones.
Newspapers cannot afford to author everything they publish. They must develop compelling content by aggregating and editing data that can be easily and appealingly acquired by consumers who are overwhelmed with too much information. Aggregation sites should be combined with personalization technology and smart ad systems, thus giving consumers control of the user experience and the publisher targeted advertising inventory that can be sold at premium rates. Newspapers also should acquire algorithmic publishing systems to turn government records and other raw data into compelling new products like Everyblock. In each case, the newspaper should buy and not try to build the relevant technology.
Newspapers have to make their sites truly interactive. There is a strong desire among consumers – particularly young ones – to contribute to and comment on the news. Newspapers can leverage the crowd for everything from investigations to self-help forums and from hyperlocal news to restaurant reviews. In developing the portfolio of products suggested above, the middle-aged managers who make most of the business decisions would be well advised to consult young staffers – or students at the nearest high school or university – for insights into the types of products that are likely to fly.