By: Alan D. Mutter
Back in 1940, 80 percent of the 1,877 daily newspapers in the United States were published on the afternoon cycle, meaning that editions were printed some time prior to noon for delivery to consumers coming home from work. And it was good.
By 2000, 52 percent of the nation’s 1,480 newspapers were publishing on the morning cycle to accommodate people who worked later, had longer commutes, and were more interested in watching TV than cracking open a freshly delivered broadsheet. And things were still pretty good.
In 2009, according to the latest statistics published by the Newspaper Association of America, 62 percent of the remaining 1,387 newspapers were produced overnight for delivery around 6 a.m. But things lately have not been very good, with newspaper circulation down by a third in the last 20 years.
Now, a bit of interesting market research suggests that going back to an evening news product may be one way for newspaper publishers to build new audiences and revenues. But the evening product of the 21st century would be delivered on mobile and tablet platforms, not in print.
Here’s why a nightly eNews product could hit the spot:
Newspapers today face a Bermuda Quadrangle of competition in the hour (or less) around 8 a.m. when people check their smartphones, their computers, their iPads, and their Facebook accounts to see what the day has in store.
In research released earlier this year, comScore, the digital ratings service, found that mobile phone, computer, and tablet use spikes in the morning, as consumers get ready for work. Separately, Dan Zarrella, a social-media marketing researcher, found that the early-morning action on Facebook rivals the spike in activity the site experiences in the after-dinner hours.
Newspapers unfortunately operate at a disadvantage in the battle for early-morning mindshare.
Unlike their competitors, newspapers don’t ring, beep, buzz, tweet, friend, or vibrate to get your attention. Papers also contain generic information that is less mission-critical to most individuals than, say, an email from the boss, a tempting Groupon offer or a picture of your cousin’s new baby. All too often, the trusty print product piles up, mostly unread, until the consumer finally cancels her subscription.
Electronic intrusions may not be as much of a problem with the older-than-50 readers, who represent about half of newspaper readership, as they are with the sub-50 cohort. But young’uns are the audience that publishers have to acquire if they hope to have a future. Given the un-affinity most young consumers have for print, newspapers are going to have to find another way to reach them.
Fortunately, the comScore research contains a hopeful nugget. The company found that iPad use rises considerably during the after-dinner hours, when consumers evidently make time to catch up on articles they have cached or bookmarked during the day.
Newspapers can take advantage of the quiet time consumers apparently set aside for reading by publishing products delivered on mobile and tablet platforms in the hours between roughly 6 and 8 p.m.
The nightly eNews product would contain a certain amount of standard newspaper fare, including late-breaking news, a wrap-up of the day’s major headlines, weather, sports scores, and stock market news. But it should also be a tool for getting the most out of life, including:
• Community calendar, featuring things to do and places to go — for you and your kids
• Hot picks for movies, music, and television shows
• Daily deals and shopping tips
• Advertising and prominent promotions for upcoming features in the daily and Sunday print editions
Packaging is just as crucial as content. Long, windy, and gray stories must give way to brief, engaging content that is easily downloaded and consumed on a smartphone or tablet. At-a-glance graphics and quick video clips should replace words as much as possible. Displays should be held to a single screen that can be read conveniently on a mobile gizmo held in the landscape position.
There have to be places to comment, upload user-generated content, and — very significantly — share articles with friends.
Up for grabs is whether this should be a free or subscription-only product. Free most certainly is the course of least resistance, but some publishers may be bold enough to try to sell subscriptions at something like the 99 cents The Daily is charging for weekly access to its iPad app.
Even if the product is offered for free, however, publishers should require users to register (directly with the publisher or via Facebook or Google), so they can begin profiling the location, preferences, and behavior of users. (Make sure your privacy statement matches the policy you pursue.)
For a guy who started on an evening newspaper whose offices were turned into a café when it went out of business, it’s fun to see how everything old is starting to look new again.
Alan D. Mutter is a journalist who became a Silicon Valley CEO and today serves as a strategic consultant to media companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur at Newsosaur.Blogspot.com.