Old media continues to fascinate me… probably because I do a lot of work with book publishers and we are speaking with more and more newspapers about the MinutesNotice local advertising platform.  Of all the folks I see rejoicing over the creative destruction of newspapers, ironically I don't know of many of them who actually engage with newspaper people on a regular basis.  Tonight's post includes some observations I've made on the local news industry through my experiences of helping redefine the business back 10 years ago at Stratfor, participating through this blog and my blog at Microsoft, and now working with newspaper people on a regular basis.

Allow me to generalize for a moment, but I have found newspaper folks to be very, very knowledgeable about what's going on with technology.  They get what is happening with the social Web.  In fact, I think they know more than a lot of venture capitalists.  ;-)  They understand that people are consuming news & community information in new ways.  They see the demographic shifts and they recognize that something needs to be done.  But what exactly?  Prop up the old business?  Stand up a new business?  Experiment?  Hunker down?  Anyone who has at minimum read a Harvard Business School case understands that these things are complicated by legacy employees, management, and the economics of the incumbent business.  These are difficult problems without any clearly logical solutions.  And these companies are run by astute business people who are aware yet grappling with the realities of a local, print product in an increasingly online, social world.

What are the realities?

  • Geography doesn't matter in 2009.  Someone who isn't a fan of the hometown team can follow that team through RSS and Google News Alerts better than he/she can follow them in the local newspaper.  And often times, they can follow the home team through the local newspaper's web site… or local blogs… or message boards… or e-mail lists… etc.
  • Yet Local still matters in 2009.  We may be consuming more things from national/international chains and we may be following news/entertainment from other parts of the country or world… but local still matters.  How do we know this?  Well the proliferation of local publications is a hint.  In Austin, we have no less than 5 major ones in print along with a series of local blogs designed to capture "local local" news, events, and advertisers.  And it's working.
  • Newsprint is out of favor in 2009.  Because of convenience, online preference, environmental concerns or whatever, many consumers today prefer online content to physical content.  I'm not making a value judgment here… it's just what I see in the marketplace.
  • Consumers are busier than ever before in 2009.  The average person doesn't have time to scan a paper every day with breakfast to discover what he/she wants to read.  Maybe folks can do this on Sundays but certainly not the rest of the week.  Not enough to matter to the circulation of a newspaper.

So what do I think newspapers should do?  A few strategies that I'd recommend… but with the caveat that I am *not* intimately familiar with all the economics of a newspaper:

  1. Use the strength of your numbers — despite current difficulties, many newspapers have large #s of print subscribers, e-mail subscribers, etc.  This is your strength… utilize it to compete in new areas,
  2. Buy upstarts — don't be afraid of local blogs and community publications… bring them into the fold.
  3. Discounts - the only time I've considered a newspaper subscription is when I've thought about using the Sunday coupons.  Most newspapers should also provide a pretty easy consumer ROI through coupons/discounts.  Push it… it's a big benefit especially nowadays.
  4. Ramp up sales to businesses — every time I walk into a business, I should see flowers, a few magazines, and the local paper.  You'd be surprised how often you don't find a newspaper at the reception desk.  Every local business should have a free newspaper.
  5. Blanket the community — I've always heard the newspaper doesn't cost much to print on a per unit basis.  If that's the case, newspapers should be freely available everywhere.  Put one on my doorstep every day.  Make a dozen copies available for free in every restaurant and coffee shop.  More readers = more leverage for local <insert initiative>. 

Just a few thoughts from an observer… if papers can keep the eyeballs together, they'll weather the storm because they'll eventually figure out the operational + business model changes necessary to win.

One final thought… here are two particularly interesting observations over the weekend… from Brian Solis and Fred Wilson.  I liked both.  People are getting smarter & consuming media in new ways.  The challenge is on for newspapers to stay relevant in these changing times.  It's time to experiment & adapt.