Rescuing Newspapers and the Power of Brand
By Tom Dougherty
Of all the changes that modern technology has ushered in, nothing is more distressing than the demise of the daily newspaper. Across the globe, newsrooms are clipping the wings of their staff of reporters, closing domestic and foreign bureaus, and relinquishing the seeming insurmountable battle for being the news of record. As a result of the advertising hole in newspapers shrinking to a small fraction of its former glory, even if readership levels remain constant, newspapers are forced to retract. (Read our take on CNN)
I’m not saying that I have the solution for this downward slope towards this event horizon. However, I do know how to find it.
Newspapers Have a Brand Sweet Spot
The purpose of a brand is to protect a product or company from always having to be first, most innovative, or even the best. At its core, brand seeks to so clearly identify its core customer that to purchase anything else is a form of suicide. Sadly, when I think about the demise of local newsprint, it feels more like genocide than suicide. The next great extinction may not be found in Darwin’s work but rather in the esteemed readership of the clearly informed. Unless at least one newspaper invests in fixing the problem, the industry is doomed and, as a result, so are those of us who desire to be informed.
And in this conundrum is the rub. If newspapers are an important part of the self-description of being one of the informed, how can that void go unfilled? How will we get our news in the next 10 years? What will happen to our self-identification as being on of those that knows? (Read some of the foibles in brand creation here)
Many on the inside believe that the problem with rescuing newspapers is the deft of advertisers. After all, we all knew that the real cost of putting together a daily paper was never covered by the newsstand price. The advertising section paid it for.
This is a part of the puzzle that will be harder to fix. Online resources for the real-estate section, automotive section and classified ads have been replaced by an online access that is more efficient. Don’t expect those ad sections to ever recover. Markets move inevitably toward economy and there is nothing we can or should do about that. But there is hope.
The Current Model of News is Not Working
Listen to the meta chatter going on all around us. More and more viewers find the major news networks anything but newsworthy. For the most part, they are talking heads chattering on with bias and agendas. They are spin-doctors masquerading as experts who blow everything out of proportion, incite vitriol, and repeat the same tired refrains until they all look like automatons.
People increasingly complain about the quality of the news they get and yet more and more rely on web news portals and cable news networks for their fill of timely nuggets. While these blurbs keep us well informed on our sports addiction and Hollywood gossip, we all know that it is a poor substitute for hard hitting and revealing news. Despite this duality of a lack of meaningful news and a retracting of local newspapers, readership is still declining.
Remember the old story of the fat, cigar smoking railroad executive from the 1920s with his feet up on the desk and his gaze resting on a wall of awards and certificates? Then suddenly, a young twenty-something busts through his door in excitement and says to his boss as he point out the window at a passing bi-plane — “Boss, we need to get into that airplane business!” The boss replies, in a self-assured way…”Kid” he says, “get out of here…we are a railroad.”
Why are Newspapers Failing?
I think the term newspaper is about as meaningful today as a checking account. It needs a new definition. Something that says the reader is knowledgeable and different. Informed and not opinionated. Engaged and not obsessive. Well rounded and not a demagogue. These self-identifications are the silversmith’s hallmark of a brand. They cause a magnetic property that attracts everyone who covets that moniker. Of course, it means that the truth of the statement must be made explicit. Should the new newspaper be about entertainment? I think in a small way, but I would let the research help me with that. Conventional wisdom, by the editors that are as near underwater as an air breathing creature can be, will tell you about the most widely read sections of the paper. But that readership roadmap might not be so important to the new generation of loyalists that a new brand of paper must excite to survive. All I am saying is that someone must take a fresh look at this category because the conventional wisdom of experience is failing them. If a newspaper is to survive, thrive, and grow in importance, the managerial staff must be willing to challenge everything. The answer may or may not be an online subscription. What I am suggesting is that there are a lot of tried and true ideas that need to be abandoned.
Fixing the Flight of Advertisers
Ask yourself what businesses covet an educated and informed market? How many advertisers would like to gain direct access to those consumers? I think the answer is not to expand the advertising hole but to think instead of section sponsorship. Link the advertisers directly with the aspirations of the reader. There are no brands that I know of that do not want the blush of a brand association that reflects on importance, integrity and truthfulness. To have that association, newspapers can charge more for that sponsorship and give it excusive prominence. Local restaurants and services would pay handsomely for that access. Not in terms of full sponsorship but to appear in those sections as well.
To my thinking, this is an old model that needs refreshing. When you look at old newspapers or even watch vintage TV, long copy ads and commercial sponsorship seems a little naïve. But that is precisely its power.
Newspapers cannot be allowed to die because our civilization needs a questioning and unbiased arbiter in a free press. We need to rescue newspapers. Will any newspaper take us up on the challenge and ask us to apply our skills of research, persuasion, highest emotional intensity identification and market share growth? Stay tuned. But, I am hopeful.