You’re the publisher of a daily newspaper. You quit your job with plans to start work the next day to launch a competitor in the news, information and advertising business serving the same community. Forget all past loyalties. Be ruthless. What are the big weaknesses you’d exploit?
That’s an exercise any good business leader thinks through from time to time. But seeing things as starkly as a competitor would is a tall mental order. Actually fixing those deficiencies once you get past the denial stage is another challenge altogether.
The newspaper industry has struggled most of all with confronting competition that it didn’t understand. Back in the day, it was simple enough to match a neighboring city paper’s coin racks street corner for street corner, to beat them on an important local story, and to steal away their best ad rep.
But how do you compete against the audience’s ability to network and organize with each other, or advertisers ability to market directly to the customers and potential customers they want to target? How do you compete against the bottom falling out of digital advertising rates because “follow the reader” targeting has led to an explosion of inventory.
And how do you compete against apathy about local government and community institutions and problems?
The lack of direct, personified competitor has probably contributed to legacy media’s failure to recognize and address its more self-inflicted wounds.
A direct competitor to a typical legacy daily newspaper in 2016 would look to exploit:
Reputation and expectations. Before newsrooms shrank, newspapers used to cover more stuff. And subscriptions cost less. And they did more for their customers. They might still be covering more than any other outlet in a community, but the expectations game is a lost cause.
Customer service. Newspapers have outsourced their relationships with their most loyal customers, frustrating print subscribers and advertisers who just want to get a real person who actually has authority on the phone to fix a delivery or billing problem.
User experience. To a startling degree, newspapers still allow print to dictate how the news is written and presented and how readers access it. Readers who have come to expect a “frictionless” user experience on mobile and the web are bombarded with popup ads and paywalls that have roots in a hold on to print revenue strategy.
Employee morale. We’re well past the point where the best ad rep being stolen away is the biggest threat. Recruitment and retention of the talent necessary to figure all of this out might be legacy media’s number one challenge. And the head trash of industry malaise that must be overcome to instill loyalty, work ethic, creativity and customer focus among those who remain is daunting.
Focus. Two decades of newsroom cuts with no discernible shift in editorial strategy leaves newspaper content a mile wide and an inch deep. One of the most obvious things a competitor would recognize is that you don’t do any one thing very well, and by having the luxury of choosing not to tackle everything a traditional newspaper thinks it has a duty to cover, they could provide “everything about something” and dominate particular sectors.
If this sounds bleak, well, for most daily newspaper franchises in this country, it is.
But step back into the shoes of that would-be competitor for a moment and think about what you wouldn’t have on day one of some kind of startup: Customers.
If you consider the base that still remains of paying consumers and paying advertisers that a daily newspaper has relationships with, and how that’s really what it’s all about, one could argue that legacy media is starting the game on third base.
A way forward could relate back to that expectations game. Readers are still judging newspapers against a standard set by much bigger newsrooms. But the bar has been set so low when it comes to customer service and true relationships with readers and advertisers that modest improvement and innovation in this area would defy expectations and build the goodwill that could feed a comeback.
Matt DeRienzo is a newsroom consultant and a former editor and publisher with Digital First Media. He teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University and the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and is interim executive director of LION Publishers, a trade organization that represents local independent online news publishers.