Newspapers and Resiliency

Stephen DeAngelis

November 7, 2006

If you’re living in the United States and reading this blog, I encourage you to vote today. We celebrate when we see massive turnouts in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Congo — knowing voters there face real danger and show amazing courage just by turning out. Yet, facing no such danger, we will be lucky to get half of registered voters to turn out today. Tonight we’ll watch the returns on television, but tomorrow many of us will read newspapers to get a fuller story and better analysis.

Recently there has been a spate of stories about the plight of traditional newspapers. They continue to lose readers and advertisers. Although they have increased their presence on the Web, the increases have not made up for the losses. That has forced them to try new things to survive. Saul Hansell, writing in the New York Times, for example, reports on a trial partnership between large newspapers and Google [“Newspapers to Test Plan to Sell Ads on Google, 5 November 2006″].

In a move into the old-fashioned business of ink on paper, Google is going to start selling advertisements that will appear in the print editions of 50 major newspapers. Google’s plan will give the publishing business a high-tech twist: the company will expand its computer system, which already auctions off advertisements on millions of Web sites, to take bids for newspaper ads as well. Hoping to reach out to a new crop of customers, such as small businesses and online retailers, many of the largest newspaper companies, including Gannett, the Tribune Company, The New York Times Company, the Washington Post Company and Hearst, have agreed to try the system in a three-month test set to start later this month. For Google, the test is an important step to the company’s audacious long-term goal: to build a single computer system through which advertisers can promote their products in any medium. For the newspaper industry, reeling from the loss of both readers and advertisers, this new system offers a curious bargain: the publishers can get much-needed revenue but in doing so they may well make Google — which is already the biggest seller of online advertising — even stronger.

The article notes that newspapers often have difficulty filling space they have set aside for advertising and often sell leftover space at a discount. Google can reach non-traditional print advertisers looking for new ways to generate on-line customers but who don’t have large advertising budgets. By allowing advertisers to enter an auction for available space, both advertisers and newspapers stand to gain along with Google.

One of the large newspaper companies working with Google — Gannett — is trying other approaches as well [Frank Ahrens, “Gannett to Change Its Papers’ Approach,” Washington Post, 7 November 2006].

The nation’s largest newspaper chain, is radically changing the way its papers gather and present news by incorporating elements of reader-created “citizen journalism,” mining online community discussions for stories and creating Internet databases of calendar listings and other non-news utilities. The McLean company has 90 newspapers, including USA Today, the nation’s largest. Like all major newspaper firms, Gannett has watched circulation and advertising revenue slide over the past decade, as readers turn to television and the Internet for news and information. Gannett is attempting to grab some of the Internet mojo of blogs, community e-mail groups and other ground-up news sources to bring back readers and fundamentally change the idea of what newspapers have been for more than a century. The attempt to involve readers in news-gathering is part of a larger plan that also calls for Gannett to merge its newspaper and online operations into single units to speed delivery of news and improve its offerings to advertisers.

It may come as a surprise to some, but until recently the print and on-line staffs of many newspapers were separate. Ahrens points out that Gannett’s reorganization not only merges print and on-line staffs but involves non-journalists as well. This will probably make journalists’ skin crawl, but the popularity of blogs indicates that people look a lot of places for their information, often believing that newspapers are too elitist. The initial test of this approach was impressive.

In a test at Gannett’s newspaper in Fort Myers, Fla., the News-Press, from readers such as retired engineers, accountants and other experts was solicited to examine documents and determine why it cost so much to connect new homes to water and sewer lines. The newspaper compiled the data and wrote a number of reader-assisted articles. As a result, fees were cut and an official resigned. Maness called it a “pro-am,” approach, referring to a golf tournament in which professionals play alongside amateurs.

One wouldn’t think that those in the news business would find themselves struggling for survival in the “information age,” but that is the scenario in which many traditional newspapers find themselves. Those that prove resilient will be those that demonstrate an understanding of the environment in which they must operate, adapt to it using flexible approaches, and put in place a system that helps them become proactive instead of being reactive.