On Saving Newspapers: A Search Marketer’s Rant

Der Bund
photo credit: lorenzwalthert

In 1996 while employed as a CBS affiliate’s Creative Director, our team built the community’s first television station website and started publishing daily news show scripts. It was pretty amazing  stuff. The white paper to station management to procure our initiative’s budget, was that “broadcast television could become minimized or obsolete in light of changing publishing paradigms” and that the station should hedge its bet by “targeting newspaper customers now” by early adoption of the Internet which was “going to become the millennial printing press.”

I moved on from that position in 1998 for the opportunity to found the interactive unit of a venerable Minnesota advertising agency, now Westmoreland Flint. Then was a radically less diversified media world comprised of print channels, network & cable TV, radio and billboards.

One of Westmoreland’s clients was our fair city’s 100+ year old daily paper, the Duluth News Tribune, owned at the time by Knight Ridder. You’ll recall that bandwidth was nascent, 24k modems the norm and Internet penetration only fledgling. However, there was already plenty of free news online to keep early adopters from buying the physical paper. Subscription numbers had already started to decline and it was becoming obvious to some of us that the newspaper industry was already screwed.

The Completion Backwards Principle
The irony was stark. Research clearly indicated the public’s perception, of which news outlet covered news with the most immediacy, was exactly reversed. News consumers believed that radio was the most nimble, always first to the scene. TV was perceived as the next most real-time followed by newspapers. Ironically, any measure of newsroom size, editorial prowess and sheer ability to mine and process news proved that newspapers had the most depth by far, followed by television then radio …exactly the opposite of reality.

The print paper industry never recovered from its failure to leverage superior news gathering capability to turn public perception to reality. By the time they figured it out, newsroom capacity was being diminished by sharp shooting budget whores from corporate, to keep staff cuts up with dive bombing subscription and ad revenue. Sadly it was too late. Algorithmic search engines like Overture, Yahoo and Google had already grabbed the cheese by branding search services that truly were the most immediate meta-sources. Oops.

Early Search Marketer Meets Fatal Newspaper Myopia
I’ll never forget meeting the DNT publisher to present our agency’s recommendations, and how disappointing her lukewarm and nearsighted response. That crisp autumn morning in 1998 we told the Duluth News Tribune to purchase an Avid or Media 100 digital video editor and send every photographer out every day with consumer grade hi-8 video cameras. “Beat broadcast at their own game” we wrote in bold bullet points. Having been inside the television industry, it was plain to see that the broadcast model was vulnerable.

That white paper discussed the vanishing barriers to becoming a “broadcast news hub” and how superiority in news gathering force would win the day if newspapers took action quickly, now-while they still had the might. “It’s no longer required that we procure FCC licenses or build multi million dollar broadcast towers.” Bandwidth is coming in the form of ISDN and DSL.” “Cameras and editing workstations are relatively inexpensive and, in the future, viewers won’t always trust glossy presentations.” We recommended that they “take broadcast on directly, immediately and establish the DNT as the most immediate hyper-local news source on the Internet.”

The second component we suggested was right out of the TV station marketing playbook: “proof of performance PR campaigns.” We said “when you are the first to the fire and publish video, pictures and audio (which could be transmitted by phone patch live) stake that position out in the marketplace by publicizing afterwards. Broadcast TV and radio had successfully parlayed the proof of performance campaigns into market share for years.

The approach was so easy. When first to a news event, CBS 3 was “working for you,” Johnny and Jane on the spot with crucial real time information to serve the public. Newspapers didn’t see it. The Duluth News Tribune and Knight Ridder were dead wrong. Now they’re just dead.

Enter 2010, The Age of Reckoning
So what now? Sadly, newspapers are going out of business right and left. What possible new approaches could be considered to consolidate and grow paper readership to more sustainable results? Being a search marketer, if I was publisher of the New York Times or Minneapolis Star & Tribune– these are the types of radical ideas I’d consider:

1-Stop Giving Away News For Free
This one’s easy. Newspapers are going out of business because middlemen like Google claim a high percentage of ad revenue by current models. On-web page ad sales and AdSense style affiliate marketing simply can’t support newspapers. That’s one of the reasons so many papers have gone out of business. Only allow story headlines and excerpts to index in Google.

Give free online subscriptions to those receiving physical paper delivery.  These physical subscribers are a paper’s best friend. Bundle Sunday delivery, usually a larger audience than weekday, with online subscriptions. Make a big PR deal out of it. Sell online-only subscriptions for 1/3 the cost of physical delivery. This tact is a risk, no doubt. However at the end of the day if readers won’t pay for content by some model, newspapers won’t survive anyway. Gradually encourage readers to transition from paper to wholly virtual goods.

2- Aggressively Open More Channels Live From The Field
Send all field reporters and camera men/woman out with cameras & broadcast real-time. Take national outlets like CNN on directly hyper-locally. In most cities the local paper’s newsroom staff still outnumbers those at television and radio significantly.

CNN sure can’t be at the Duluth City Council Meeting yet thousands of readers want to know what happened. Google has little hyper-local presence and most would-be community news blogs spew irresponsible crap that the public won’t trust. Publish audio and video first from the scene.

Newspaper reporters can offer social experiences to give readers unparalleled access to news and news makers by social channels like Twitter. Be there first, publish first and then do what newspapers have always done best–offer the deepest detail and analysis after the fact to support its ability to be immediate.

3-Beat Search Engines at Their Own Game
Search engines win by indexing newspapers’ content without compensating them satisfactorily. Take them on at their own game by meta-indexing search engines and offer readers the ability to quickly drill deeply into aggregated multi- search engine results framed in the newspapers’ SERPs. Instead of allowing the search engines to profit obscenely from content they did not pay to create, piggyback on top of their free services to spooge revenue from them.

Create localized search engines that index only local content, including what the search engines index. There is a well-traveled legal road giving search engines the right to index content they did not create. For some screwed up quirk of history, the index now has more financial value in society than the actual content. Change the game by offering a more focused local-index, leading with the paper’s own content.

4-Create the “Social Media Editor” Position
Move the newspaper’s Community Manager position to the newsroom rather than the marketing department. Leverage existing channels instead of building expensive applications. When school is canceled from a nasty snow storm, send the alerts out by Facebook and Twitter. Publicize reporters LinkedIn profiles in the print paper and actively encourage readers to connect. There are many other tactics which come to mind easily.

Make the process of gathering and sharing news a more social experience and get readers involved in conversations, closer to the source before stories are published. Offer interactions with news makers and reporters from the field. Publish notable and salient tweets to invite next-gen news consumers to the table. Offer better search of archived “live” events. Publish the best of them in the physical paper.

5-Brand by Proof of Performance
When the paper is first to the event, broadcasts by real-time channels and involves readers to serve the community, use the track record to brand the paper. Proof of performance marketing has worked for broadcast outlets for decades. It’s astounding that the PR/marketing model is not used to advertise millennial real-time channels.

Newspapers have always had the edge in gathering local news. Tragic industry misreactions to the Internet’s emergence nearly sealed their fate in the mid-to-late 90’s. The results might have been different if newspapers had never allowed search engines to index their content for free in the first place. To this writer’s mind, the solutions have not changed all that much since the mid 90’s, though the print news industry has sure dug themselves a deep hole.

Bottom line: Local news gathered by local reporters has a lot of value in this world. We’d hate to see newspapers go the rest of the way towards becoming only artifacts and memories.

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