Monday, February 09, 2009

Community publications need
to distance themselves
from the newspaper crisis

There are newspapers and there are newspapers in crisis.

It’s a them and us. The big guys and then the local and regional papers, be they weekly or daily, free or paid. I include shoppers and niche publications.

The big guys are in big trouble and we shouldn’t be, because their problem is our opportunity (I say “we” and “our” because I can’t get the publisher out of the consultant.).

I bet I had that conversation a dozen times in the last few days at the New England Press Association annual convention where I was a speaker. I was reassured to find there are a few publishers out there who are doing just fine. Sure, some are hurting, but some are only down a few percentage points from prior year. A handful said they were even up. I believe them because I know they put out good products.

If you’re a good local paper doing your job, I’m betting you’re going to be stronger when this is over. You just need to keep doing the things that make community papers valuable. Stick to your knitting and mind your P’s and Q’s. And don’t blink.

The franchise for the local paper is the collection process, news and advertising. Main Street and town hall and the local high school are our domain. Ask me to describe the formula for the successful local newspaper and I’ll say the same thing I’ve said for 30 years. It’s the owner’s manual for the community. “If it’s important to them (the reader), then it needs to be important to us,” was the drill for my reporters and editors. That means finding room for every reasonable press release and staying until the lights are out at the school board meeting. And yes, we may have to upset the mayor by asking hard questions.

Give that concept some thought. If you’re doing your job you’ve covered all the bases in news and advertising. You’ve provided an updated slice of life in the communities you cover. My grandparents would call it a smorgasbord, something for every appetite.

There was further evidence that local publications are healthy in a recent joint study by Suburban Newspapers of America and the National Newspaper Association. In a survey of papers with a total circulation of 10.5 million, here’s what they reported:

Data collected in 2008 showed a 1.7% decline in advertising for the third quarter, 2.4% in the second quarter and 2.7% in the first quarter (all were measured against the same reporting period from the prior year.) Fourth quarter results will be available in late February. These results compare to industry-wide double-digit declines of 18.1% (third quarter 2008), 15.1% second quarter 2008, and 12.8% (first quarter 2008), as reported by Newspaper Association of America

The opportunity?
Let’s look at what’s happened and what some of the big guys have done. They’ve lost circulation, cut staff and content, some have eliminated early week editions and others have stopped early week home delivery. The new wave is a hybrid e-paper, an early week electronic edition and late week print delivered.

They have finally admitted that all days of the week are not created equal, and maybe immediacy was not everything they said it was in the past. Some of their web sites are also a confession acknowledging that people do care about the little news in their lives. Groups like Rotary and Lions and the Chamber of Commerce do contribute to the local quality of life; the big guys just can’t justify the news hole in the paper.

Their weakness is the local publication’s strength. Don’t just print that community news, showcase it. They aren't likely to get it anywhere else. You own it and you become a bigger piece of their information life.
If you’re a weekly, tell advertisers there’s no guesswork about which is the best day to advertise. You create the event and people know when to look for it. You offer shelf life and that’s the same thing as frequency. You likely have affordable zones with strong or saturation coverage. You sell proximity and that's where the people who find it easiest to do business with them reside.
Don't say circulation, say effective circulation. There can be a big difference. Big is not always better.

I’m a newspaper junkie so none of this brings me comfort. But local publications need to pay attention to what has gone on, and step up. Yes the industry needs to develop multi-media platforms but let those e-world buzz words also ring for your paper. Content, engagement and community are what local papers are all about forever.

The sooner local papers distance themselves from the “newspaper crisis” the better off they’ll be. Create a marketing campaign to differentiate yourselves, script your sales reps to talk about it and arm them with pieces quantifying your strength and value. Tell them to “road test” the paper for accounts and point out the constituencies for news content. Count the number of paid ads in the paper (classifieds too) and tell them these people voted with their checkbooks that this is the place to communicate. Use testimonials.

No one will tell your story if you don’t. If you don't then people will just think you’re just another one of those papers in crisis.

This is no time to hold back, the stakes are too high.

Next: No one ever cut their way to success.