For those of you who know any history about our business, you probably know that we originally worked to build a way for local businesses to create their own coupons and do their own marketing.  But we realized very quickly that our job was different than we thought - the technology was one part of the problem.  The other part of the problem was putting those offers/discounts in front of large audiences of people.  That thought process is what ultimately pointed us in the direction of local media and purposefully *away* from creative disruption.  More on that in a later blog post.

As we pursued local media properties and newspapers, we secured a few deals and have launched our local offers/discounts platform with several major newspapers — most notably The Dallas Morning News, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and American Consolidated Media.  But as any other startup experience, that has kicked off more learning and insights that I thought I'd highlight today.

First, a caveat.  Local newspapers are very much like any other industry that is facing disruption.  Threats come in a wide range of forms — companies, movements, individuals who have some iteration of "self-publishing" capability but don't need a ton of profit (and sometimes no profit) to be motivated to create great product(s).

It is in this creative disruption sense that the smallest, most under-the-radar companies in the world are driving innovations in publishing today.  It is probably why the Knight Foundation recently boosted its funding of new innovation, why "super angels" are the new big thing in venture capital, and why folks like Y Combinator and other small incubators are centers of innovation.  Other people in the blogosphere have covered these phenomena in much more intelligent and much better detail over the last 18-24 months.

Anyhow, newspapers (like other big businesses) don't rush to support innovation because they can't just aggressively turn a dollar into a dime & do so enthusiastically.  So their moves in technology are incremental, and not revolutionary.  And their attempts to do things revolutionary just quite frankly miss the mark.  I'm referring to things like experiments with pay walls, the creation of a "me-too" mobile app strategy, and relatively meaningless partnerships with location-based services.  All of it reinforces the opinion that many people have that newspapers don't really encourage true innovation and that senior leadership typically doesn't understand the Web in a real, intrinsic way.

All of that said, if I were running a paper or in the executive boardroom, here are a few things I'd consider deeply:

  • Understand that the business is "local" and not "news" or "content" — big misconception in most local media companies I interact with.  As late as the mid-1990s, the content was the key to the business.  Fifteen years later, the key is relevance to local audiences — people, businesses, etc.  Content can be found anywhere.  Great content can be pushed to you by friends, the "curated Web", Twitter, etc.  The key for local media in the future is staying relevant in the local market.
  • Recalibrate human resources to skilled Web & mobile personnel — most newspapers have 10, 20, maybe even 50 writers per developer or Web/mobile product manager.  These same papers may have another 50 people in the supply chain per developer.  Guess what?  The supply chain is different now.  The winners will be people who understand technology, not the route of a paper truck.  Skilled labor is key, but I don't see a lot of urgency in papers to fix operational inefficiencies that put all the pressure on a small number of people to help modernize the business.
  • Emphasize social media for brand extension, but not direct selling — some papers are panicking about their social media offering and are scrambling to find monetizable ways to reach consumers and businesses.  Local media companies have a role to play to help local businesses navigate marketing in 2010 and beyond — and some of that may involve social media.  But local media companies that seek to monetize social media directly from consumers quite frankly just don't quite understand the nature of the medium and the ill will that will be created by trying.
  • Accept the iterative imperfection of the Web — huge disconnect here and likely a legacy issue tied to years of print deadlines.  Nobody likes mistakes, but programming isn't exactly print layout either.  Give everything its due — folks at newspapers stand behind their editorial process and the # of people who have to be involved in creating content.  But the same people don't give the same respect of the programming craft, and they certainly don't fund it adequately either.
  • Stop making excuses for salespeople — everyone is being forced to get smarter.  So should your sales reps.  Sure, the cash cow is & remains to be selling print ads to car dealers and other folks with big pockets.  But that business is getting weaker and weaker every year.  The successful sales rep of 2020 has a different suite of products and is involved in a different, much more consultative sale than the rep of 2010.

I say all of this at risk of upsetting a few friends here and there.  But it's my outsider perspective looking into an industry that still has a lot of resources and brand affinity even in 2010.  I don't think newspapers are by any means dead, but the best ones are already iterating, learning, and modernizing.  Are you?