A few friends on Facebook (a walled garden- a wasteful place to have meaningful discussions) had a discussion about the end of newspapers. Most of them had been in the business or still are. There were lots of repeats of the standard sky is falling misconceptions about why newspapers are dying:

  • young people don’t read newspapers
  • giving away content online is a mistake
  • releasing breaking news before publication devalues the print edition
  • advertisers aren’t advertising in them because they’ve moved to more trackable methods
  • the economy is bad
  • local businesses don’t advertise anymore
  • how can newspapers compete with aggregators and bloggers who steal their content

The problem is, all of them are missing the core issue- newspapers were never the best way to distribute news, they were just the best solution when there was no internet. Stop thinking of news as content to go in a “paper” and you begin to solve your problems.

Let’s look at the limitations of the original newspaper:

  • There is a deadline for “publication” that was fixed. If the story was going to be covered it had to be in process before 7 or 8 pm to make the midnight press time.
  • Newspapers have limitations on space- with additional costs to run longer stories. They can’t run video, audio, or most importantly update after the publication or engage in 2 way discussion.
  • A huge part of the expense of creating a paper was in physical equipment- and supplies. Printing presses, ink, paper, distribution had to be covered by advertising and retail sales, before the cost of content creation was even factored in. It lead to exclusivity and a monopoly in most communities.
  • Because of the costs of distribution- and the length of the supply chain, you didn’t have to compete with other papers in your community- unless people wanted to read day old or two day old news. Only a local paper could get the content to you quickly and keep it relevant.

Reaching back to a brilliant book from 1996, “Being digital” by Nicholas Negroponte, there is a single axiom that must be understood: “Bits not atoms.” In other words, things that are created digitally, shouldn’t be converted to atoms- paper with ink unless it enhances their utility. Very few things fit this axiom when it comes to news or advertising.

The only value proposition a local news outlet has anymore is to connect a community and to be able to really know each of their readers well. Since we’re no longer creating a one size fits all general newspaper- with a fixed size and lifespan, we must become the go-to resource for local advertisers selling atoms (physical goods) that people in the community want and need.

Even here- the problem becomes that everything is one click away to be bought from someone else online. Showrooming, the practice of going to stores to see the product and then ordering it online from someone cheaper is a major problem for those that sell commodities that don’t have a short shelf life (fresh groceries) or are too big to ship inexpensively (furniture, weight sets, car engines). So the market for advertising locally has become smaller- services, local restaurants, the arts, hospitals and health care, sports teams, they become the people who need local advertising the most- but, most of them have caught on to building friends and followers via social media – and can’t afford the newspapers overhead to be included- this includes the legions of sales people that news outlets employ to sell space in their finite paper or finite TV commercial space. Outdoor has seen a resurgence since it can’t be ignored, skipped, missed or requires a subscription.

Note: Google lets advertisers buy their own ads without the help of  a legion of salespeople- and, Google knows their readers/users really well by tracking behavior, serving up custom content.

Getting back to local news organizations, they’ve been acting as the anti-social media for so long: one way communication, highly controlled, exclusivity, monopoly in their media space, that they’ve become irrelevant. That’s a big part of why newspapers have lost their value to advertisers. But, there is one big factor that many in advertising forget and don’t like to acknowledge- the fallacy of composition: just because you are online and all your friends are online- doesn’t mean everyone is.

There is a digital divide. Besides being a country with pathetically slow internet connections, we’re not universally wired. We’re not even close- and to the people who don’t have a connection, they still depend on the printed edition. The problem is, they are generally not in the key demos advertisers want. This is why the idea of running community newspapers as a non-profit community service is becoming more relevant and interesting to those who think about the value of a well informed public- from everything to the important decisions on who to vote for, to understanding the issues of the day.

Advertisers who want to be considered good neighbors, who believe that a healthy, well informed community is good for their business may begin to have a reason to advertise and support a publication that improves their community if it is also able to serve as the community hub/forum that set the agenda for the community.

Civic pride and civic duty are the keys to journalism of the future as well as community building. The monetary value will follow the utility of the content, not the other way around. Seth Godin has said over and over that he’s made more money by giving away his ideas and that the widest dispersion is the best when it comes to his content. He’d rather sell you 10 copies of a book for a buck each and have you give them all away, than sell you one for $20. The value is in the connection and the value the journalist adds with that connection- that inspires patronage and pride in the product, not because the ads are useful or the coupons save the reader money.

In Dayton Ohio, we’ve been watching the experiment by Cox Media of trying to integrate TV, Radio and Newspaper under one roof since late 2011. TV and Radio are both facing the same fates, except broadcast TV has been giving away its content for free since TV’s inception as has radio. In the UK they paid for these services with a tax on TV sets and for the longest time independent broadcast wasn’t possible. The same thing that’s happened to newspapers with the net has happened to TV- now anyone can distribute video, on demand, and not have to own a transmitter or a license from the government, enter YouTube, Vimeo, Ustream etc.. Radio has been made irrelevant by iPods, Pandora, Spotify, etc.

Once again, the key to being relevant to local advertisers is local content. The non-profit public radio station understands this and has local people on the air, talking about local issues and events. For profit radio doesn’t even have to have a person in the studio all day anymore using voice tracking and programing from Texas.

What’s most funny about Cox is that they still think there is a difference between print, radio and TV- not realizing all of them can be engaged on a single device called an iPad. Yet, they maintain different sales forces, different rates and different websites- all adding costs and no benefits to the end user. Integrate and refine your messages to a simple, single stream and engage in the old One-to-One marketing idea and you may become relevant to your advertiser again.

Local advertisers need local media. Local media needs to have and know it’s local audience. Only then, will the two connect again.

And, just as Seth Godin says you make the most from giving away your insight, I’ve given my local media a gift in this post, I just don’t think they are ready to accept that their way is D.O.A.