The man who decimated the business model of the newspaper industry worked for 17 years as a programmer for IBM in New Jersey. Craig Newmark had no newspaper experience when he launched Craigslist, which, for all intents and purposes, destroyed newspaper classified advertising.
In 100 years, when the history—let’s hope it is not an obituary—of the American newspaper industry is written, the historians will say that our advantages slid away because we failed to see how the World Wide Web created a disruptive tool that anyone smart enough could use to swipe our business. Craig Newmark is Example Number One. His photo will be at the start of the chapter.
For the record, I have heard Newmark speak and he truly had no intention of killing our classified business. It was our industry’s failure to adapt that allowed so much business to vaporize. It is not the only example. I worked for E.W. Scripps when a mid-level corporate executive named Ken Lowe (who worked in radio) developed a concept for a cable television network “about grass growing and paint drying.” It was called HGTV and it should have been owned by Meredith Corp., which owned the magazine Better Homes and Gardens. HGTV has become a mega-hit across the globe, but understand the lesson—a radio guy invented a cable channel to own a category that had been dominated by a magazine.
Is it too late for us to use the disruptive tools to dominate and own key categories that will still bring us readers and revenue?
I hope not. But what if we:
Developed the master narrative of our community. Create a vertical site and app so rich and deep in its coverage and detail of whatever story defines your community that it becomes to your hometown what Politico is to people who love politics; what Pinterest is to those who love fashion, gardening and home decorating. (Didn’t we used to have sections like that in our newspapers?)
The San Jose Mercury News developed this with “Good Morning, Silicon Valley” and Boston Globe Media recently launched a compelling site called STAT, which it describes as reporting from the frontiers of health and medicine. It is distinct from the Boston Globe print newsroom. The site is young, but I imagine it becoming must read for medical professionals as well as people interested in health and science news (especially when they launch a mobile app).
Each community has its own story—be it in culture, sports, entertainment, tourism, business. Why don’t we set out to own that story in a way our print editions don’t?
Own what we used to post on refrigerator doors. “Tim Gallagher has been pitching well for the Cubs.” That was the first time my name ever appeared in print. It was a Little League roundup in the weekly newspaper in the small community where I spent my summers. That clipped paragraph stayed on our refrigerator door until it turned brown.
Facebook can memorialize the moment for friend-to-friend, but smart newsrooms could create a local scrapbook app and site for “official notice” of notable local milestones. Creating this vertical for weddings, engagements, awards, honors, graduations, bah mitzvahs, births could create a loyal audience.
Grab one last category—legal ads—before they get away. For decades we relied on the gravy train that is known as “legals”—those mandatory notices for everything from zone changes to bankruptcy. And we charged for these. Boy, did we charge for these. There was competition for these among the local newspapers—daily vs. weekly, but now there are moves countrywide to place these legals online. (And non-newspaper competitors have developed sites for this purpose. So have government entities.) Newspapers are fighting this move, but why not create the vertical and join the movement? Own the legal advertising online because you own the community’s credibility.
Owned professional directories. Certain professions still reject advertising. Newspapers could create professional directories for processionals—doctors, lawyers, accounting firms. Using their credibility, newspapers could own the category of “Yelp for Professionals” in their communities. Imagine how helpful it would be to learn that the dental office you pass on the way to work has a great reputation and takes your insurance.
Our future depends on our ability to create these deep verticals in an attractive and profitable business model. Craig Newmark’s “free” classified model worked, and today his net worth is $400 million.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.