Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Can You Think We're Sexy?

The July issue of Editor & Publisher valiantly decided to bring up the question: Is there any way that 18-to-30s can be made into newspaper readers? (These don’t seem to be online yet.) Internet enthusiasts will say, stop right there, fool’s errand. But if you run a business, you have an obligation to find out if your customers can be made to want your most profitable products, before you simply give up on them. Nothing revanchist or woolly-headed about that.

Utah State senior Rob Jepson – I have no idea how he was picked, he is the traditional aspiring journalist with a poli-sci major and a journalism minor – doesn’t blame the product, he blames the customer – or at least says, look, the customer in that age isn’t ready yet. I suppose that’s like saying, when we were getting smashed on Boone’s Farm in the 1970s it was because we weren’t yet ready for Chateau Lafitte, which is true. It’s also Jepson saying, I’m smarter than my peers, but let’s move on. Jepson says “the struggle … lies not in adapting the news to a disinterested generation, but rather sparking the interest of a generation that doesn’t yet know what it’s missing.” His answer – put the newspaper in fast-food restaurants. Put it on buses. Give it away at schools. “You’ll create a generation of consumers by capitalizing on the insurmountable power of trend…. Our age group is impressionable, and also eager to impress.”

No issue with his ideas, except that there’s USA Today free whenever I go to Chick-Fil-A. The Metro papers started out being given away free on buses. And the minutes of university committees are filled with years of “who’s paying for this and does it undermine the revenue of our student paper” debates over free newspapers at college. Yet circulation and ad revenue still decline. But Jepson does make a good point. Part of the reason people are fleeing newspapers is because they’re told that fleeing newspapers is the modern thing to do, that smart people and (most particularly) young and young at heart people don’t read them. (Despite our protests, they’re really not being told this by Google or Craig Newmark. They’re being told this by thousands of posters who want to make sure you know how impressed they are with themselves for being hip, and not reading a newspaper is a really easy way to show how hip you are, because not doing something is easier than doing something.)

I remember the ad campaigns for the Wall Street Journal back in the 1970s that basically said, if you want to be seen as successful, have a folded Journal under the arm notch of your suit jacket. Newspapers and journalists wanted to be seen as cool back then, until USA Today came out and marketed itself to John Q. Traveling Citizen, and journalists recoiled in horror because we didn’t find John Q., with his love of color weather maps and six-paragraph stories, to be cool. Cool people read 200-inch stories on rhinoceroses. And the readers ticked away.

Newspapers do need to make the newspaper seem like a good option for intelligent people “eager to impress.” It’s hard for them to do that, though, when they spend all their time saying, “Well, since hip people are getting their news through tablets, we’ve got to be hip and go there, even though none of us has a good idea how to make millions there.” Nothing wrong with following your customers; but how do you deal with it when following your customers makes your most profitable product look out-of-date? The industry says, “Give us some more time to ponder that.” It’s been pondering that for 17 years and still doesn’t have a good answer.

E&P also turned to Pat Ivey, circulation director in Durango, Colo., who notes that 18-to-30s have “seen everything…. What possible interest could they have in looking at a newspaper? Still, photos, bold graphics, and clever headlines may grab their attention. But if the story is yesterday’s news or it doesn’t spark their emotions, don’t expect much more.”

His solution is to “run stores that share real-life experiences others in their demographic have had, conveying a sincere regard for the interests of young adults. Invite their comments, print them, and don’t edit out those that may surprise or shock us… Give them fresh stories they will yearn to share with friends.” If they want some Red Bull, give it to them.

Back when times were good, at the Inquirer a bunch of our then-younger staff members – the ones we later largely laid off – put together what they called a “new view” committee. Their point was that we were not covering stories of experiences others in their demographic have had. We wrote about fancy houses of 50-year-olds and not how to furnish an apartment on $1,000. We wrote about suburban taxpayers and not about young people in the city (or the suburbs, for that matter). We wrote about power and not about those trying to figure out how to get it. And, OK, we wrote about sports, but often from the standpoint of, “This brings to mind Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 100-point game,” to people who had almost no idea who Wilt Chamberlain was.

They were right, and we did try to meet them. But every day in the newspaper business, one is reminded – sometimes very self-consciously – of the people who buy the paper every day who have done so for 50 or more years, and they want to read Beetle Bailey because they have read Beetle Bailey every day for 50 years and it is irrelevant whether he is funny or not. As long as Beetle lives, the world they inhabited is not over. The fact that these are not the people advertisers want to reach – well, that is irrelevant to them, as it should be. They want the paper they have lived with for years just like they want Maxwell House Drip Grind coffee from the percolator every morning. And unlike most of our readers, they have no compunctions about letting us know what they want. They’ve got the time, and not much else to do.

Jepson would want the business to say, “Smart is the new sexy.” Well, maybe not those exact words, but he would get the idea. In an editorial, E&P also trashes the Newspaper Association of America’s campaign using that very phrase. It’s not that the idea is bad; it’s that, in the view of editor Jeff Fleming, the ads being used are neither smart not sexy. His main argument (again, I’m not seeing it online), though, is “why this ad is … scheduled to run in print newspapers across America. I’m guessing the average subscriber is already smart and probably let go of sexy with their last hip replacement. And if, by chance, someone younger than 30 happens to see and actually read the ad, I don’t think (it) is going to turn them on to subscribing to a newspaper – especially after reading the 48 words of text that entice readers with how to make a peanut butter icebox pie.” As my colleague Nick Cristiano says, whenever newspapers try to do hip, they show themselves to be square.

Fleming notes: “If newspapers want a long-term, meaningful relationship with a 27-year-old, they need to walk the walk and feel the talk.” But we all know why the ad is running as a house ad speaking to newspapers’ current readers – it lets some publishers say they’re supporting the campaign while not actually spending any extra money, burying it in their PSA and glue budgets. “I ran the ad, but what can I do?” Walking the walk indeed.

Can newspapers reach 18-to-30-year-olds? Sure; they already do. Look at college newspapers and small-town newspapers. Can newspapers ever again deliver 80 percent market penetration? Not a chance. So we’re back to: Who are our customers and how do we find them? A question the newspaper business, with its Woolworth’s-like past of “Everyone is our customer,” still has trouble getting its hands around. “Smart people are our customers” is at least a start. And “emotions” is the key word in Ivey’s message from the Front Range.

Still more to come.


Scoats said...

Newspapers were essential when there wasn't much read. Now those of us who loved newspapers can't possibly read all we want to. We drink so strongly from the fire hose that is the Internet, that the last thing we want to do is page through a newspaper (either physically or in print form electronically). Especially when the same or equal content is on our cellphones.

I am bearish on newspapers not just due to reading overload, but also because being a generalist was only important when distribution was expensive and content scarce.

Now being a generalist is just adding more unwanted noise.

Newspapers are inefficient. It's almost like expecting young people to start using a horse and buggy to commute to work. Sure some might think it's cool, but most people will consider a Smartcar to be a more efficient solution.

The real issue should not be "how do we preserve an antiquated business model?", but "how do we fund professional local news reporting?"

website copywriting services said...

While newspaper are becoming less relevant.. I do agree about college newspapers still being popular. I know lots of college students who still read their school's newspapers (the paper copy.. not online version!)

Of course if students have to pay for it that may not be the case... which is probably the biggest issue with regular papers.

rknil said...


You write a million words to say what could be said in a few. People have turned away from newspapers because the content has plummeted, in quantity and quality.

No one is going to buy a newspaper every day when there's nothing interesting in it. And by interesting, I don't mean "GREAT GRAPHICS!" or dumbed-down news caplets or whatever other nonsense the visualwordstuff crowd promotes.

Davisull said...

As noted at the start, internet enthusiasts will say, stop right there, fool's errand. So if I used too many words, you were warned.

Scoats: Will most people consider a Smartcar to be a more efficient situation? Probably over time more will, and if cities such as Murcia, Spain, continue to make car use more difficult, that will put another weight on the scale. But most? Efficiency usually runs a poor second to emotion, and walking out your door and getting into your car seems pretty efficient to most people. The car companies' challenge is to stay competitive as operating costs inevitably rise. To do so they need to concentrate on people who will buy cars and not spend much time worrying about those who will not. Same thing for newspapers.

Scoats said...

David, my point was that newspapers are like the horse and buggy. Once very useful, but now outmoded, and no longer used for good reason.

When I have information flowing all over the place (such as the phone in my pocket), why do I need dead trees?

Davisull said...

You may not. Others may. Some people like coffee. Some tea. Some like news on the iPad. Some don't. The question is: Can there actually be room for true multiple platforms? Or does "multiple platforms" simply mean "phone vs. tablet"? If you've found happiness without printed newspapers, fine. Happy for you. Must it be a universal solution? The argument seems in so many cases to come down to the unassailability of efficiency.

It's a good argument. Except that in some areas we all are inefficient and cherish it. We all persist in liking things that we could do, in someone else's mind, more easily. But we do them because they bring us pleasure.

I have also noted in past posts that really heavy news users -- news junkies, if you will -- are going to be newspapers' worst customers whereas they used to be the best. But not everyone wants to be plugged in to what's happening as much as others do. For some people, an update once or twice a day is just fine.

Scoats said...

You're right. Newspapers will survive in some way.

It's like horse drawn buggies vs. cars. There are still buggies, but I can't recall ever seeing one go by my house.

rknil said...


As I'm sure you know, my issue with your point is you, like so many others, bend over backward to ignore the failed, awkward attempts to attract readers with visual doodads. None of that has ever come close to working, yet newsrooms keep trying it.

I'm not exactly an Internet enthusiast as much as I'm someone who simply shakes his head at all the silly things newsrooms still try to do. There's far less reason today to buy a newspaper than there was a few years ago. There's simply too little in it to justify the purchase.

From here, the debate usually branches off into you or others making every excuse in the book as to why the visual approach cannot possibly be to blame. Then, of course, I would cite the numerous times people in newsrooms claimed it HAD to work because of some vague information a consultant or professor or some other detached person had spoonfed them.

Those debates are generally pointless, and I grow weary of listening to the same people trying to justify the same failed approaches again and again. So I generally avoid them.