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    Russell Viers is a Transition Expert in the publishing world. Since 1997 he has helped newspapers and magazines adapt to changes in the industry. Read more...

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  • Archive for September, 2011

    Just the facts, ma’am

    Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

    “Printed newspapers will thrive for decades to come,” I hear publishers say. Kevin Slimp writes in his columns that this newspaper crisis is just like Y2K…nothing to worry about…just keep doing what your doing.

    I want to believe it…I really do. But the data says something else. The data shows we need to begin now to adapt to a changing business model.

    It’s my view that the majority of today’s community newspaper publishers are making ten year plans based on emotion, not facts. This view was supported recently at a state newspaper convention.

    I sat in on a “mock trial” session where the future of print was to be decided by a “jury” of newspaper people in the audience. The “defendant” was By the year 2020, the majority of community newspapers will be electronic only and the “plaintiff” was Print will live on!

    The attorney for both sides was Ken Blum, playing different characters, and arguing, as objectively as possible, for each side. After his arguments for and against, he left the room while the Jury debated.

    From where I was sitting, both Blum and members of the jury used facts when presenting a case that print is on it’s way out, but when it came to reasons print will live on, the arguments were based on opinions. The final vote was 28 to 12…print will live on after 2020.

    We have an exciting ten years ahead of us, and things are changing quickly. We can’t rely exclusively on what’s worked for us in the past and we can’t judge the industry by what we see out our windows. We need to look at trends in our industry, as well as other industries, to try to plan a course that will not only keep us in business, but allow us to thrive.

    For example, I wrote a blog article recently, Let Your Fingers Do The Googling, talking about the death of printed Yellow Pages. In that article I mention how the city of San Francisco is not allowing the free distribution of Yellow Pages to residents unless they sign an opt-in card. How would that same ordinance in your city for your shopper or other TMC product, like special tabs, etc. affect you? It’s important we look cross media, as well as what’s going on nationally with papers, to make hard decisions.

    The good news is we’re not alone. There are many resources out there to give us the information we need, and today’s publisher should be following them regularly.

    A good example is Pew Research Center. They have a lot of stuff on there you can gloss over, but there is good research on the trends in our industry and the people who are our readers. Recently they published some very useful information, with nice pretty charts, showing how various age groups get their news today, compared with the past ten years.

    When I saw the following graphs I flashed back to my advertising sales days, remembering the importance of the prime consuming demographic to local advertisers. These days I would set that age at about ages 20-60.

    With this age group in mind, look at these figures:

    According to Pew Research, 18 to 29-year-olds get most of their news online now, even beyond television and WAY beyond printed newspapers…um…21 to 65 percent.

    For the 30 to 49-year-olds market, what I would consider the prime market for most advertisers, the internet hasn’t passed TV, yet, but it’s on it’s way…and fast. But what matters more is how many more people in this key demographic get their news today from internet vs. printed newspapers. I’m in this group (barely) and I find it interesting how many people my age, who didn’t grow up with computers, are really connected with iPods, smart phones and tablets. Most even play Angry Birds on one device or another.

    For 50 to 64-year-olds print is still the primary source of news, but look at the angle of that jump from ’09 to 2010…how long will it stay that way?

    And now we get to your subscribers. Yes, I said YOUR subscribers. Most weekly and small daily papers I meet today tell me their average subscriber is over the age of 65.

    There you go…if this trend holds, and the subscribers in this demographic stay alive, you should be able to keep these subscribers for a long time. There doesn’t seem to be much threat of the internet taking over this group any time soon. But if you were to tell your advertisers that the majority of your subscribers are over the age of 65, would they still advertise?

    If you saw these exact same figures for the population of our county, and they showed this type of growth in the Hispanic community, would you start a Spanish edition or pages of your paper? If you knew that 65 percent of the people in your county were over the age of 55, would you start a Senior page in your paper? If you knew that 65 percent of the people in your community were hunters, would you start a hunting page…or whatever? Point is, these are important numbers and shouldn’t be ignored.

    The majority of the people in your community are getting their news online! What are you doing to reach them?

    Take these graphs and a box of crayons…draw the lines out further. Assuming there is NO CHANGE in the trend, what does the next nine years look like. Also take into account the attrition in the 65+ graph and it starts staring you in the face. Oh, by the way, these charts are pre-tablet, so throw that in the mix. Now all of a sudden, 2020 comes into perspective.

    Someone in the “jury” commented that “nine years is a blink of an eye…I don’t see it happening that fast.” Brian Steffens,¬†Director of Communications at Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, retorted “Nine years to us is the blink of an eye, but in the technology world it’s an eternity.” Good point. The iPad has been out barely more than a year. The iPhone has been out only since ’07.

    So what do we do about it? Get serious about your website. Get as serious about your website as you are about your Back to School tab, or County Fair tab, or Progress Edition. Get as serious about your website as you were when you launched your shopper.

    I have a customer using my Atomic News Tools product who had empty ad spaces on her website. I asked her if she would ever publish an edition of the paper with empty spots or if she would fill them with house ads and PSAs. She immediately filled the site.

    I have other Atomic customers who I’ve asked “Did you do a story on your new website in your paper? Are you promoting it? Are you getting the word out?” Many said “we never thought of it.”

    It’s important we recognize the threat and potential of the internet and get busy making it work for us.

    This isn’t my opinion…there is a mountain of evidence to support that print will be dead by the year 2020 (read my article Viva la Print)

    But what if I’m wrong? What if you put all this energy into a website and it’s making you a additional income…and your print product is still strong. Wow. You now have an edition that’s making money, targeting one demographic, while still making money from your established print product.

    The jury vote determined that print is alive and well and will thrive for decades to come. I would like that to be true, too. I would like the businesses that have prospered for years on newspapers to continue to do so, as well. I love print. I love helping newspapers improve their print product while working faster…it’s my business, too. But if I step away from my wants and look at the facts, I have to be ready to adapt in the direction of the trends…and that starts today.

    This doesnt have to be seen as a negative – it’s an opportunity. ¬†If I could offer news as it happens, without the cost and hassle of printing and dealing with the Post Office…at a profit…I would do it in a heartbeat. But just because internet news hasn’t proven profitable by itself, yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. And if you wait until it IS profitable to get into the game, I’m afraid you’ll find someone else has beat you to it.

    Writer’s Note: Click here for the complete Pew Research report.