Will Newspapers Find a Way?

Michael Grimaldi

Recent news that the Times-Picayune, a storied icon in the American daily newspaper industry, would cut publication to thrice weekly raised hackles in the Crescent City and eyebrows nationwide, prompting a key question for many observers of the Fourth Estate: What is the future of the newspaper business?

There is little question that the future of newspaper journalism is digital. But the routes that newspaper companies are taking to their digital futures are rather like 19th century pioneer trails. Lots of people are going the same direction and headed for the same places, but the actual paths being traveled are hundreds of yards or even dozens of miles apart.

A 16-month study released this spring gives the best clues to what’s going on in the daily newspaper world. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that some pioneers are finding a way, but others are the industry’s equivalent of the Donner Party.

“One paper studied saw digital ad revenue grow 63 percent and print grow 8 percent in the last full year for which it had data. Another paper registered a gain of 50 percent in digital advertising,” the Pew researchers wrote. “At the other end of the spectrum … one paper studied saw digital revenue fall by 37 percent in the last year for which there are full data. Another paper saw digital revenue fall by 25 percent.”

Overall, newspapers in the study lost seven dollars in print advertising for every dollar they gained in new digital revenue, the study says.

The Times-Picayune announcement is actually one of the good stories. Some papers have closed, and others are barely hanging on while in bankruptcy court. Still others, like The Christian Science Monitor, are making valiant attempts to wean subscribers off plant fiber (as in trees) and onto optical fiber (as in the Internet).

Shouldn’t we just write off newspapers? The answer is to think about a newspaper not as a printed product on your doorstep but as a newsgathering journalism organization that can provide a good environment for your message.

Even today, despite several years of massive newsroom layoffs, newspapers employ the most professional journalists and are the best source of content that readers want and America needs to sustain our democracy.

A recent comment on a trade publication story about cutbacks at The Washington Post reminds us: “The Post was a great paper when it challenged power and exposed wrongdoing … Journalists are precisely why a business like The Post (or any newspaper) has value.”

Many newspapers also have the brand status of local civic institutions. In New Orleans, citizens staged a protest when the Times-Picayune announced changes.

Finally, new journalistic industry leadership seems to be emerging, as wealthy, smart folks like Warren Buffett snap up newspapers. You should expect to see them instill an entrepreneurial culture in a staid industry and transform what executives interviewed for the Pew study called “cultural problems” caused by “people being tied to old ways.

There will always be powerful newsgathering organizations committed to telling stories that afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, as journalists are taught to do.

There will still be value in “pitching” stories and buying ads in these media, because they will be news environments that will attract paid subscribers who thirst for what they have to offer.

The challenge is being assured that the newspaper company – or whatever the newsgathering entity is – is reaching the audience you want to reach, depending upon where the entity is on whatever path it is taking to the future.

Where does my audience get its news, and is the media I’m using or buying reaching my audience? Will my message be in print on the doorstep, atop a website with news and features, or on the tablet or smartphone?

Like 19th century pioneers headed west, newspapers will find a way. The key for passengers – companies with stories to tell or ads to place – is making sure you’re on right wagon train.

— Michael Grimaldi, senior communications consultant

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