For publishers of all kinds—books, magazines, journals, newspapers—digital came fast and furiously, like a flaming media meteor promising to change the landscape forever. And rightfully so, they quickly and keenly focused attentions on building websites, launching e-editions, starting up social media pages, and designing mobile apps, while print was pushed to the backseat.
It’s going to take publishers some work to find ways to reignite the passion readers once had for print in the way that they’ve inspired readers to read their digital complements, but what will it take to get people to pick up printed newspapers again?
Digital Phenomena and the Ad Experience
There have been many large and small digital victories across the newspaper industry. This very publication has brought you those stories as they’ve unfolded. But there are some noteworthy things happening in the digital space now that may inspire at least a segment of readership to see print as the most desirable way to learn about the world around them—things like paywalls, ad-blockers, and new ways to buy and consume news in digital bite sizes, like with Blendle’s recent North American launch.
These are important questions: If readers’ digital appetites are being satisfied in this new one-off way, will they turn to print for a broader reading experience? Are paywalls having an adverse effect on digital subscriptions, thus inspiring readers to go back to accessible print? And does the ad-blocking phenomenon mean that readers will ultimately want a printed reading experience, where they can immediately decide if and when they want to read an ad, without technology making that decision for them?
Michael MaLoon, vice president of innovation for the Newspaper Association of America, noted that it may be too soon to know how profound the impact will be from ad-blocking software, and thus whether its popularity ultimately bodes well for print. This past May, the NAA filed a Complaint and Request for Investigation with the Federal Trade Commission over ad-blocking practices.
MaLoon cited 4 to 5 million current users of ad-blocking software and acknowledged that is certainly having an impact on digital news. “Some of the blame is on a bad ad experience, and we know we have to work harder to make ads more attractive, more appealing,” he said.
But MaLoon also thinks that there’s a larger cultural disconnect that newspapers need to market their way out of—that many consumers thinks news is and should be free. “I often equate it to this: Would you walk into a grocery story, grab a gallon of milk and just walk out of the store? I try to explain it to people so that they begin to understand that they’re not just blocking ads; they’re also blocking the business model. They’re potentially blocking their access to the micropayment and subscription model, too.”
With print, the culture is different. Readers expect there to be ads, but that doesn’t mean that publishers can’t do a better job of presenting ads in a more attractive and contextual way, MaLoon said.
“I’ll use Condé Nast Traveler as an example,” he said. “When you open the magazine, do you see the advertising as obtrusive? Does it bother you? No. It feels like it’s a part of the magazine experience. It makes sense. It’s meant to be there. And print is a good place for native advertising to exist, especially if we can make them graphically appealing.”
Digital publishing has taught us a lot about readership preferences, including when, why, and how they want (or tolerate) ads. It’s a teachable moment for print publications, too.
“Here in Milwaukee, we have extraordinary print and digital household penetration. We lead the country in terms of combined digital and print, daily and Sunday, for household penetration,” said Elizabeth Brenner, publisher of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “So we start from a great position of strength, and it tells you that a disproportionate number of people in our market use or rely on the paper every week. I’d say, in Milwaukee people are excited about print, and we’re grateful for that. We never take it for granted.”
But there’s always room for improvement, and that’s certainly the case for advertising, Brenner noted.
“What digital enables us to do is target the message so much more precisely than we’ve ever been able to do,” she said. “How do I present print advertising with the same kind of precision that I’m able to present digitally? I believe we have to rethink the traditional section presentation and build advertising content around printed news content that really speaks to the reader in a very personal way. I don’t know that we’ve done that. I don’t even know that we’ve done that here in Milwaukee, but I think that’s where the advertiser’s head is right now, and if we’re not there to service and support the advertiser, someone else will be.”
Bill Ostendorf, president and founder of Creative Circle Media Solutions, has created a veritable step-by-step guide to revamping print newspapers, called “25 Ways to Improve Your Print Products” (see sidebar). In it, he offers some practical (and sometimes painful) advice, such as doing away with cumbersome TV listings in favor of more meaningful coverage of that medium; using more “refers” to plug what’s coming up in a later section, page, or future issue; and taking a modular approach to ads, for a cleaner layout, and a chance for ad sales and advertisers to rethink their ad creative more often, rather than simply relying on stale “pick ups.”
Frequency and Distribution
Single-copy is struggling. Every newspaper is feeling it. “At the grocery store, they’re in a lonely bin on the way out the door, forcing you to go get back in line if you want to buy it. It’s pathetic,” Ostendorf said.
But he isn’t ready to give up on single-copy sales.
“I think single-copy sales have more potential than home subscription/home delivery sales,” he said, “mostly because people are more transient than ever. I think single-copy needs to be a larger focus, and it’s not. There’s no question that newspapers, if they were positioned where the candy is in a checkout aisle, that sales are going to go up. There’s no question in my mind that that would happen. Magazines are there, so why aren’t newspapers there? And why can’t circulation directors work on that? It should be a top priority.”
For many dailies, weekdays are sleepy in terms of sales. It’s increasingly difficult to inspire busy readers to make that daily commitment, when there is so much information available online. It’s why a lot of publishers have taken the packaged approach of selling unlimited digital access with a Sunday print product. It naturally leaves dailies wondering if a seven-day-a-week model is worthwhile.
Ostendorf thinks reducing frequency would be a big mistake, fundamentally because it would mean diminishing circulation in the interest of trying to grow it.
“First of all, all the papers that are digital-first…have been bankrupted at least once, some three or four times,” he said. “Every company that said ‘We’re going to emphasize digital over print,’—while it may be a great trick to sell to investors—clearly can’t make it work. The companies that have tried it have lost circulation much faster than the industry average.”
Brenner agreed that circulation marketing and distribution is a problem for print. “If we can’t get the product into people’s hands, what good is it to print them at all? I think the retail distribution model—pick up a copy today at your local grocery store—is tired. I’ve seen some newspapers have some success at custom promotions and customizing distribution so that it’s conducive to the readers’ lifestyles—giving away papers at sporting events or state fairs, or putting wraps on papers and distributing them at large events. Those are all smart ways to go about it, and it’s more customized than anything we’ve done before.
“Single-copy sales are not what they used to be, and they won’t be,” she continued. “As long as readers can get the newspaper online, why would you drive to the convenience store or gas station to buy a copy? That’s what we’re seeing in the numbers. I think the most successful papers are paying attention to the real leaders in distribution—the Frito Lays of the world and other companies that have managed to establish point-of-purchase, and reaching people where and when they’re in a frame of mind, when they’re most interested in buying the product.”
Making and Marketing Distinctive Content
When there’s no distinction between the content and reading experience across channels, the risk is what NAA’s MaLoon calls “the content hangover.” Today’s readers are accustomed to reading at different times throughout a given day and on varying digital devices, in addition to print. When they find redundant content across those channels, they’re more likely to turn to another source for a new experience and content presented in different ways.
That’s one of the reasons why the industry should be excited by what Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post has done with its new Arc publishing system, which unlike content management systems of old is designed to leverage the strengths of each channel.
“If you think about how Amazon made its money, it was based on customer service,” MaLoon said. “Bezos is a guy who built his business around the fact that he made his customers happy. So it’s not hard to imagine that at The Washington Post there’s been a pretty strong ethos that was set: We have to build something that can be flexible enough to give our customers the kind of experiences they want.
“It’s significant that we have a publisher developing a system that can do that, and that it’s offering the technology to other publishers to use. If I were a newspaper publisher, it’s an arrow I’d like to have in my quiver.”
MaLoon also noted that one of the best ways to distinguish print from its digital counterparts is to reinvest in long-form and watchdog journalism—and not just to publish that type of content in print, but to market it via digital.
“These are the types of stories that may do well on a desktop platform, but they’re not going to be read on a phone. However, you can promote them in mobile. You can touch on a breaking news story, and then drive readers to the daily print edition where they can get the more in-depth coverage,” he said.
Joshua Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize awarded journalist and the vice chair of the Carey Institute for Global Good, which launched a non-fiction residency program. It’s designed to give time and sanctuary to people doing long-form journalism, which might manifest in print, photography, multimedia content, and documentary film. The program is new, just a year in, Friedman said, but interestingly many of the applicants hail from the print media space.
“There’s a market there, and there’s a market to buy it,” he said of long-form print content. Sadly, in the “perfect storm” that’s gutted many newspaper mastheads, the writers and photojournalists doing this type of work got pink slips or reassigned to bite-sized reporting done quickly, cheaply, and somewhat superficially.
“What we’re doing at the Carey Institute is to fill the void as much as possible, in hopes that someone will come along with an economic model that in the long run will solve this problem,” Friedman said. “But in the short run, if you don’t have long-form journalism, you don’t have a democracy.”
For Landmark Community Newspapers, based in Shelbyville, Ky., there is less of a mandate to make content distinctive between print and digital, with more of an emphasis on making cross-channel content that’s pertinent and practical. As with most community newspapers, Landmark is keenly committed to hyper-local content.
“We have an editorial director who works with editors at all of our papers on content improvement plans, and it’s a constant evolution,” Michael Abernathy, president of Landmark Community Newspapers, said. “We are constantly looking at ways to improve our content and share ideas from market to market. It’s important for us to be relevant, to create a product that leaves readers thinking, ‘I can’t imagine living here and not subscribing to the paper.’”
Printed newspapers can always benefit from a facelift, said Ostendorf. Inherently, every time a newspaper announces a redesign, it benefits promotionally. A redesign doesn’t have to be dramatic. Some simple changes can make a big difference to readers. For example, he suggests getting rid of narrow columns, which are visually unappealing and sometimes impede readability. He’s also a fan of bringing back photojournalists and investing in graphics and layout specialists.
As part of Ostendorf’s 25 tips for print, he also suggests embracing reader comments. This is the antithesis of what many publishers have chosen to do with online commenting sections—limiting them to certain stories, or doing away with them altogether because they don’t want to invest in moderating them. Ostendorf believes that not only should those comment sections remain, they can be curated in a meaningful way that adds to print reporting on a topic.
Lance Williams has an important job with Nashville-based The Tennessean, a Gannett publication. He’s the consumer experience director, and it’s his charge to make sure readers across all the channels have a meaningful, informed, and entertaining reading experience.
One of the ways in which the newspaper and other Gannett publications are starting to distinguish the print version is to create what Williams calls a “premium print edition.” On four occasions this year (and perhaps more frequently in the future), the publisher produces a 12-page supplement on upgraded white paper, which is entirely devoted to a deep dive into a single topic. The first issue focused on Nashville’s recent economic, infrastructure and development growth; the following issue was dedicated the fast-growing culinary scene around town. These are topics that are frequently covered in the newspaper, but the premium editions allow for far more in-depth coverage about the broader repercussions of the topic.
The premium-edition pages are predominantly filled with editorial content and commentary. There are no traditional display ads. Instead, Williams noted that they’ve taken a sponsorship approach.
“There is a revenue component to this,” he said. “The subscription rate, for example, during the month that the premium edition publishes goes up by $1. It’s nominal, not a dramatic increase.” And readers are happy to pay for the content. Though the newspaper doesn’t currently have any formal surveys or measurement tools in place to evaluate the success of this strategy, Williams said, “We are hearing a lot of anecdotal stories from readers who are enjoying the content.”
Another way that the newspaper is distinguishing its print publication is by thinking about content longevity.
“How can we make that print experience last a little longer?” Williams said. “How can we add some utility to it, so that it’s not just news that’s useful for 24 hours until the next issue is published? We want to think about print content in an elevated way, so that readers retain the paper and carry it beyond that first reading.”
25 Ways to Improve Your Print Products
- Market print like you believe in it.
- Write headlines for readers.
- Focus on subscribers that drive ad revenue.
- Go TMC with the entire newspaper.
- Switch to modular ad sizes.
- Foster creative thinking between departments.
- Rethink your TV book and grids.
- Rethink your refers.
- Leverage e-editions for print ads.
- Practice sustainable printing.
- Mix up your writing style.
- Bring the best of the Web to print.
- Expand your print products.
- Use data for sales prospecting.
- Switch to five columns.
- Modernize classifieds for a Web-based world.
- Manage obituaries for best potential.
- Reinvest in strong visuals.
- Focus on print and deliver programs.
- Sell print advertising using the Web.
- Use a virtual advertising call center.
- Produce custom publications for local groups.
- Invest in quality ad design.
- Retrain your ad staff.
- Get off the bandwagons.
Source: Creative Circle Media Solutions