I have long thought that no industry does more navel-gazing than the newspaper business. In years past, we did studies on why we were losing readers, why readers did not trust us, why readers preferred TV news, etc. In the digital age, those studies have multiplied. And as a diligent columnist for E&P, I am obliged to read most of these. But you aren’t. So let me synthesize the big trends in all our studies and reviews.
But first, read some broad studies that capture a lot of the trends. There are so many reports, you need to let others research these findings. The Tow Center recently synthesized dozens of reports and hundreds of interviews to tell newspapers how to engage their readers to drive both profit and loyalty. It’s a deep and rich report that has more rabbit holes than a West Texas mesa, but the research is essential before you plan any moves.
Here are the rest of the big picture trends and advice:
Treat your website and app visitors like customers and not “traffic.”
The implication is profound. Traffic implies commodity. Customer denotes relationship. Putting up a paywall means they should pay for what you are already doing. Perhaps that is true. But isn’t it better to ask what product or service can you offer that is worth paying for? The new CEO at Piano, Trevor Kaufman, talked about this in an interview with the Nieman Lab.
I love how The Atlantic is putting the best comments from its readers in a prominent position—almost as prominent as the article itself. This saves readers from wading through ridiculous comments to read only the best. (However, I still think there is room for reporter interaction with readers on these sites.)
The Boston Globe editorial pages tries to engage its readers, not lecture to them, by being transparent about its objectives
Small news websites started by journalists are profitable as long as they keep costs low, create unique and interesting content and have a reliable stream of revenue.
Block Club Chicago raised money for its neighborhood news content through Kickstarter and had $116,047 from 2,000 backers. And $5 subscriptions.
Hoodline in San Francisco morphed from a hyper-local neighborhood news site to one that gathers and crunches (often with help from partners) huge sets of public data to tell interesting stories, such as why one neighborhood had a lot more empty storefronts than the city average.
Linda Solomon Wood moved to Canada and launched a website she planned at her dining room table.
Social media is not your friend.
Facebook drained your readers and gave you little back. Facebook misleads us. It changes its mind every few months and all the work we did getting ready for the last big thing has nothing to do with Facebook’s next big thing. Don’t be the tail of the dog. Wag the dog. They want to be the place you go for local news. Don’t allow that. Follow Josh Constine @joshconstine if you want to be informed and steer clear of this foe.
Romancing the readers is more crucial than ever but no one has it quite all figured out yet.
One thing we know. You have to tell your story. My paper in Ventura County, Calif. has started a “6 reasons why you need our digital subscription;”started a “storytellers” program with journalists and people from the community and is dropping a new podcast on crimes in the county’s past every Wednesday. No one buys your paper because they got a tote bag for free. They engage with you because the newspaper makes it impossible to ignore them.
Always review new tools that are inexpensive (or free) and uncomplicated
E&P recently wrote about TimelineJS, which makes storytelling in a multi-media interactive timeline a relative cinch. And it looks good too.
Or find a partner. NBC News is working with a company called Left Field to tell stories using virtual reality technology. (And if you think VR is a passing fad, just think about how quaint the first apps for your phone were in 2005. It’s coming, baby.)
And the biggest trend of all you must pay attention to: Produce compelling, can’t-get-it-anywhere-else stories about your local community.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.