More than 15 years ago, in a newspaper-wide brainstorming session, I said to Steve Smith, the circulation director at the Ventura County Star, “I wonder if FedEx has any customers who absolutely, positively need it overnight, and by that I mean before dawn.”
He gave me a funny look.
I continued, “FedEx might have some customers who need to get a package at five in the morning. And we have carriers out on the street at that hour. We could deliver those packages.”
Now he was into it. “Why not deliver the mail while we’re at it?”
“Great idea. I’ll call Fred Smith (chairman of Federal Express) and you call the post office.”
We laughed and went back to figuring out how to improve our operating profit margin.
But within a few years—when the profit margins started shrinking—we took that idea and became one of the first newspaper companies to start delivering the competing newspapers. If we could make more money—and our carriers could make more money—without a significant cost increase, then the move made sense. It wasn’t FedEx, UPS or USPS, but it was utilizing one of our assets to make more money, and soon, a lot of companies were doing it.
I thought of this conversation when word leaked that the Washington Post is considering licensing the system it uses for its website content to others. This is what I had hoped for when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Post—a fresh set of eyes to look at newspaper companies differently than those raised in the industry have.
A visitor from another planet might marvel at the complex set of skills it takes to produce a newspaper every 24 hours. And a savvy business person might look at how those skills could be used in other arenas to make newspaper companies more profitable.
One must begin with the agreement that the advertising and circulation revenue approach that got us through the first 200 years in America is not going to work over the next 20 years. The revenue base of newspaper companies has to get broader with a lot of smaller streams, not just two big ones.
So what are the assets we own that could be sold or used by others?
DELIVERY: Our carriers know the fastest, most efficient ways around our communities. While many have second jobs and need to quit us at dawn, is there a daytime delivery service opportunity for some carriers? Many of our customers are elderly and might need additional deliveries they would pay for.
TEACHING: The skills of our journalists—writing, editing, photographing and designing, for instance—are marketable. Consumers pay for lessons. Lynda.com just received $186 million in investment cash. That company uses online videos (a subscription model) to teach people practical business skills. Lynda.com needs content. Who is going to be first to offer news writing skills?
BACK END FINANCIALS: Finance departments were once stacked with people who knew accounting, invoicing, reconciling and ways to keep the financial ship tight. Other companies need this help.
RESEARCH: Newspaper reporters and marketing staff know how to research information on a local community as well as anyone. As the economy gains strength, aren’t there companies that want the latest marketing data about your community?
RELATIONSHIPS: Is there another industry where you can send a letter to the boss (editor) and see it printed in the opinion section within a couple of days? That’s a relationship-building exercise. And most companies crave relationships with customers. Newspapers traditionally have not. Building relationships that are deeper can lead to more profit. Newspaper companies need to treasure that relationship and deepen it. Sell additional products and services to those loyal customers.
TECHNOLOGY: Your IT people are excellent. Mobile apps are hot. Offer to be the app developer for your local community.
Gather people from each corner of your company and start a conversation about what you do best. When your very long list is complete, start thinking about how to leverage those skills into related businesses. I don’t think any of the overnight carriers have yet figured out the “I need it before dawn” issue.
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.