Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Press of Business As Seen From Abroad

Earl Wilkinson of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association has long been one of my personal antidotes to Newspaper Gloom and Doom. Part of this is that Earl takes a worldwide approach -- he sees what's happening in Colombia and China as well as America and England. More important is that Earl doesn't see the newspaper as being identical to the newsroom. The newspaper is a business that sells ads and distributes a product and serves customers and reports the news. The first two exist to support the last two, but the newspaper is not just an institution that reports the news and the heck with everything else.

The ever-esteemed Doug Fisher must have caught Earl's blog posting around the same time as I did, but he beat me to the post. So I'll link to Doug's ever-informative "Common Sense Journalism" and his excerpt, in which Earl says after a visit to Australia:

"The two trains of thought among publishers worldwide are that:
"*The United States is an early warning system of consumer and advertiser behavior.
"*Or, that the U.S. publishers have so under-invested in their print products that they have no root system when disruption hits. Thus, the U.S. story is avoidable in other parts of the world. ...
"What the Americans get wrong in print, I was told, is projecting a templated, soulless environment for the consumer who wants to slowly browse. In the past decade, this is an increasingly gaunt-looking print environment reflecting poorly on local media brands that haven't gotten a workout in decades. While quality print newspapers should be platforms for deep engagement, U.S. publishers have created tools to get readers in and out of their print pages in shorter and shorter time increments.
"Advertisers won't invest in such a platform, my friend said. They don't want to be associated with platforms devoid of sizzle."

I'll quote further:
"American publishers, [his friend] mused, have given up too quickly on print as a platform of lucrative engagement.
"Don't confuse migration of eyeballs to digital platforms with the death of the print platform. Don't abandon all efforts to transform print from our only platform of engagement to 'one of several platforms.' Just because print might have a smaller impact in the next five years doesn't mean it's a dead platform."

"Others at the conference had plenty more to say from what they've viewed from afar — volunteering to the American speaker their views of why their national newspaper industry is different from my country's experiences. For example, the U.S. newspaper brands don't stand for anything other than guardians of a professional journalism standard that — to consumers — feels distant, detached, and unemotional. In design, story selection, and locally written news as a percentage of pages printed, the American publishers have fumbled the print environment.
"Sobering. Probably goes too far. Yet interesting perspectives.
"By contrast, the conference featured three case studies of newspapers that are getting the print environment emotionally correct: “i” in Portugal, Toronto Star in Canada, and A Crítica in Brazil. The Portuguese newspaper redefines what a brand can be in print with a “daily magazine” design so stunning and different as to defy characterisation. The Toronto Star lives by a set of principles by its most famous owner with a clear “social conscience” viewpoint. And the Amazonian daily A Crítica personifies soulfulness and a reader-first campaign mentality."

Earl elaborates on this in the September Editor & Publisher, which is behind a paywall so I will further quote him:

"Advertisers aren't investing in newspapers because a print product doesn't work. In fact, the research suggests that print works beautifully because of the nature of the audience and medium. Instead, advertisers aren't investing because newspapers are losing the perceptual war in building, sustaining, and nurturing their audiences....

"A brand isn't like wine in a bottle that grows in value as it ages. We confuse age with value... A brand is the sum of all contacts over time.... The perception of a news brand gets shaped by product condition, billing, editorial position, rack location, the way a phone is answered. ... I sometimes wonder how a multibillion-dollar industry can function without knowing much about its customers."

(From the traditional newsroom perspective, of course, anything you knew about your customers would lead you to pander to their biases, so best not to know anything. We would produce what was best for them, and they would appreciate it. From the business-side perspective, we didn't have to know about our customers' problems. They had to know about ours, because not only was our business infinitely more complicated than theirs, where else were they going to go? Take it or leave it, pal. Hmm, we didn't expect they'd choose the latter...)

Earl's point in all this is that everything affects whether people care about your product -- what you cover, how it's delivered, whether the Sunday paper at the 7-Eleven has a torn front page and inserts falling onto the floor, whether the person you call in the newsroom does the usual newsroom thing and hangs up on you after belittling you for bothering him -- and the point he and his overseas friends make is:

Customers have to care about your product. If they don't, they'll just walk away.

And while Earl's feeling is that sometime before the year 2100, the economics of gasoline, ink, paper will spell the end of printed newspapers -- "The issue won't be whether people abandon print, it will be whether it's economically feasible to serve markets via print versus other alternatives" -- in the short run, print works.

He even notes "a counter-revolution against digital -- too much information, too much connectedness ... short-term, there's a backlash that we should take advantage of." Elsewhere in the issue, E&P quotes the "Digital Future Study" findings that for the second year in a row, the number of Internet users who said they would miss the print edition of their newspaper increased, and this year the number of people stopping subscriptions to get information online decreased.

As News & Tech columnist Doug Page wrote in the June issue (I couldn't locate a link in its archive):

"For the newspaper industry to remain viable, it needs to go back to basics, focusing on sales, service, and content of the printed edition and changing its attitude toward its old-fashioned paper product."

And for what to do next, we will turn to, out of character for TTPB, Jay Rosen.

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