The news about the ailing newspaper industry is that both of Chicago’s daily papers were last year in bankruptcy, and there was talk that it might become a one-paper town.
Is the newspaper industry dying? That’s probably too dramatic, but it’s certainly sick. However, there is a cure. If newspaper publishers act aggressively, they can save this essential institution.
How so? For our model of how to rescue the newspaper industry, let’s consider two media who have been where newspapers are now: radio and television. The dawn of television was supposed to destroy radio altogether. After all, why listen to radio dramas when you could now listen and see them played out for you, giving you more of a multi-sensory approach? But again, radio saved itself by taking the advantage away from TV. It began offering something where the eyes weren’t all that important, and radio became predominantly a medium where music was played. And radio was saved.
And of course, there was a day when A.M. radio was king, until the far superior-sounding F.M. radio debuted. Everyone thought A.M. radio would die a swift death. But then A.M. did something smart: They took the advantage away from F.M. If F.M.’s advantage was how much better music sounded on their stations, then why not broadcast something where the sound is not all that important. Enter: talk radio and the salvation of A.M.
Newspapers have to do something similar. They have to figure out in what areas they simply cannot compete with television and the Internet and take the advantage away from them. For instance:
* Cable news and the Internet give their viewers the ability to get news updated by the minute. Newspapers cannot compete here, so they might as well give up trying.
* Cable news and the Internet provide news for free, so newspapers need to find a way to make this a non-issue.
* Newspapers need to find a way that the Internet’s ability to offer worldwide advertising opportunities is not important. Here then are some suggestions:
1) Newspapers need to focus on what’s going to happen TOMORROW and NEXT WEEK. They must become predictors of what’s to come rather than voices of what’s already happened. When you’re talking about something in the future, you’re as relevant as the Internet or TV; nobody has the advantage. Therefore, focus heavily on analysis of what’s likely to happen. Emphasize weather and traffic and upcoming sporting events. Use lots of space to talk about local events that are coming up. But let’s be honest: To get people to pick up the paper, these will have to be things that you know are truly going to titillate their interests. Therefore, don’t be shy about talking about the risk of earthquakes in your area in the next ten years…..which intersections are accidents waiting to happen, etc.
2) Newspapers need to focus on crime, and get the public involved. This is regularly one of the most-read parts of a newspaper (and most-watched part of TV news). The newspaper gives the ability for a person to study unsolved crimes and to try to help out the police, in a way that other media cannot.
3) Newspapers must become free. This is radical, but it’s already working well overseas. If the daily paper is as free as the Internet news, then why not pick it up when you’re going out? This, of course, would mean that the paper will become advertising supported. Thousands of weeklies already make this work,. There’s no reason the dailies can’t, as well. When advertisers know that more people will be reading the paper because it’s free, more will advertise in the paper rather than (or in addition to) online.
4) Newspapers must draw attention to the parts of the paper people have traditionally loved most. That’s the front page, comics, coupons, and weather. I strongly advise that newspapers begin running a comic strip or two on the front page, with a teaser to go inside to see the rest of the comics for the day. Likewise, a lot of people get the paper simply for the coupons. So don’t be afraid to put a coupon on the front page, with a mention of how many more coupons are contained inside.
This might sound contradictory, but STOP PUTTING THE WEATHER ON THE FRONT PAGE! The comic I mentioned earlier is just to get people interested enough to want to read the rest of the comics. But too many publishers put the most important part of the weather on the front page, where a person can read it at the stand without getting the paper. Just put a teaser that “Weather is on page 12.” This way, they have to pick up the paper and hopefully take it home, in order to read the weather.
5) Newspapers must target local small businesses first and foremost. These are the guys that the Internet does a sad job of serving. Advertising opportunities online are national and global, not local. The small mom-and-pop business is still struggling to get word out about their business. Target them.
6) Newspapers should consider specializing:: a daily crime-fighting newspaper (example), a daily entertainment paper, and so on. People today like to read for very specific purposes.
These steps, if followed, should keep the newspaper industry competitive for decades to come.