Papers hinge on the Internet for existence

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BY RANDY SMITH

Whenever I’m out socially these days, the question always comes up.

“Are you OK? What will happen to you if your newspaper goes out of business?”

If you’re in the newspaper industry these days in America, there’s concern about the future. Two large metropolitan papers, The Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have failed. The two Detroit dailies are now publishing only on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. On the rest of the days, they are only found online.

Despite all of the gloom, I think that we’ll end up surviving. We’ll have a leaner staffs, but we’ll also boast a larger portfolio of niche and online products. As evidence, online revenues in our industry are growing rapidly, despite the worst economy since the Great Depression.

If you’re reading this from East Africa, this may seem like an American mess that will never touch your shores. Your media houses are incredibly strong at the moment, resembling what we enjoyed in past decades.

But our present will be your future. There will come a time when the internet will change the media landscape dramatically in East Africa, and you’ll be scrambling to learn what your American cousins did during this time of crisis.

Until recently, we were largely immune to economic troubles. Back in the last severe recession in the early 1980s, there were few layoffs. Most newspapers were fat with advertising, and many of us got raises.

But that was before the internet. It’s had a huge impact on both newspapers and television, giving thousands of choices to the public. Television has been hurt the worst. Local television reporting has been reduced to little more than the crime blotter.

Where does this leave the American newspaper? Thanks to the internet, more people are looking at our reporting than ever before.

We used to proudly tell advertisers that our circulation was several hundred thousand on weekdays. Today, many of us are telling folks that we have well over 1 million readers or more, because we’re counting online readership.

But instead of growing, American newspapers are dropping unprofitable days of the week. In the last year, 98 papers have done it. And if the experiment in Detroit works, many more will follow suit.

Why the struggle? We haven’t figured out how to monetize millions of eyeballs.

My belief is that the real solutions will come from small publications that aren’t controlled by a top-heavy management. They’re more agile and more open to the kinds of ideas that rise from the ground up.

A key, I believe, will be to charge for some types of content. Sports are one area where there’s a great opportunity with masses. Another is single topics with high interest and potential for high dollars, such as customized information for business. And, finally, there’s lots of power in our online archives with academics and the general public.

The key, of course, is what to charge. My belief is that small amounts will equal large profits. We must make sure that content is affordable to most consumers and deliverable with the touch of a cell phone button.

Niche products will also be part of the economic model. Sit back and think about what you might be printing for groups that advertisers love to target: young people, financial investors, mothers, home and leisure.

If we start thinking like entrepreneurs, my prediction is the current economic strife will be a memory.

So closely follow what happens next. There’s certainly blood in the water. But our industry is far from dead. 

(This article first appeared in the DN edition of April 4, 2009). 

Randy Smith is vice chairman of the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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