By: Ellen Sterling
It was just a short while ago that print publications were writing their own obituaries, seemingly giving up the fight for audiences and advertisers in the onset of the digital age. That is no longer the case.
In 2012, print organizations are finding new ways to retain and grow audiences and advertising. By thinking creatively, print organizations are finding ways to take on digital media and level the playing field. Now, companies like The New York Times and Los Angeles Times are offering classes and lectures for the public. The Los Angeles paper has a huge book fair and gives out annual book awards. They and many other newspapers create and sponsor events and merchandise. The New York Times, for example, has for many years sold photos and front-page reprints. They have a wine club (nytwineclub.com), as does The Wall Street Journal (wsjwine.com), through which individuals can buy wines at different price points. Newspaper groups are joining together in advertising ventures (quadrantone.com) and in any other way that will help in this changing environment.
In short, in the quest to survive and thrive, newspapers are turning very entrepreneurial.
Nights On The Town
Last month, the New York Times announced a travel program called “Times Journeys” which, according to a press release, “will engage participants in conversation and thought-provoking analysis on an expedition of seminars covering current events, film, science, music, and technology.” Film critic A.O. Scott will be among Times staffers on the journey.
The Times also hosts “Arts & Leisure” weekends throughout the year. This gives people the opportunity to hear public figures they might otherwise not have an opportunity to hear. January’s roster included composer Philip Glass; actors Carey Mulligan, Juliana Margulies, Josh Charles, and Alan Rickman; designer Simon Doonan; and writer Robert King from the TV show “The Good Wife.” Considering what entertainment costs these days (especially New York theater) the ticket price is moderate — $30.
As the New York Times draws on the city’s theater and arts communities to give the public access to these events, so does the Los Angeles Times take advantage of its location in the movie-making capital. The L.A. Times’ special section “The Envelope,” devoted to Hollywood awards shows, sponsors a free screening series where, after the film, the actors and filmmakers are interviewed.
On its Events page, the paper says, “The Los Angeles Times has brought readers the information they need to make their lives more productive and enjoyable. As an extension of that mission, we produce an annual series of public events.”
Toward this end, the paper also hosts a travel show, book fair and book prizes, and, this year, will host its Third Annual Directors Roundtable, featuring George Clooney, Stephen Daldry, Michel Hazanavicius, Alexander Payne, and Martin Scorsese.
In June, the Times will host “A Night of Music + Fashion” and “Hero Complex,” a film festival for sci-fi and fantasy film fans. Some of these events benefit local nonprofits.
In August 2008, still a student at the University of Pennsylvania and seeing how print organizations were feeling great pressure from both digital media and a broken economy, blogger Albert Sun posted a list of “nine ways that newspapers can make money that aren’t advertising.” These included merchandising, consulting, localization of news, and customer service.
Sun’s 2008 post has proven to be prescient. Today, there is merchandising, consulting, hyperlocal news, and enhanced customer service at newspapers across the country.
For example, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, the Star Tribune Co. (startribunecompany. com) is using its carrier force to create new products and revenue opportunities. In that, they say, they’re ahead of the curve.
Owning The Distribution
Paul Kasbohm, Star Tribune’s vice president of advertising sales, said that ideas for new approaches to their products come from throughout the organization. “Giving people a voice is key. We guarantee everything will be heard, if not necessarily acted upon,” he said.
For some time, newspapers, in addition to reaching their subscriber base, have been reaching out to the wider community to deliver an advertiser’s message.
“Here’s what’s different now at the Star Tribune,” Kasbohm said. “These advertising products are traditionally delivered by the United States Postal Service, and that’s increasingly cost-prohibitive. Preprinted inserts are just too darn expensive to deliver through the USPS. There are verified delivery companies we could use, but what we did here was to use our own carrier force that has been delivering our product, along with the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, very accurately. So, we’re going to use our carrier force.”
Kasbohm doesn’t have any love lost for the postal service and focuses more on the benefits realized by his own employees and clients. “It’s a win for the carriers because they get more money,” he said, “and for us, because we save costs we can pass on to our advertisers and, most important, we can use and benefit from the carrier force’s experience and accuracy.”
With this new approach to delivery, Kasbohm said, “We’re going to make some changes to our non-subscriber products. Until now, they were in the form of tabs that were mailed. Now, they will be repackaged. The broadsheet jacket will be four pages and will have 50 percent news content. It will be branded on the banner head as Twin Cities Values, an edition of the Star Tribune.
“There will be a three-phase rollout in March. By mid-April we will be fully distributing our new product. We’ll do protected porch delivery and install tubes where we can.”
Perhaps most importantly, taking over delivery will enable more advertisers to participate due to the lower rates realized through cost savings. “In short, taking this product outside of the mailbox is making it more affordable to more people,” Kasbohm said. “There are more advertisers jumping on it who couldn’t afford it before. The savings are significant.”
One other area to which the Star Tribune is devoting extensive resources is its online presence. Ray Faust, vice president of sales and emerging media, said that technology today gives them “the ability to target specific audiences. We’re able to not only report to advertisers on the basics, like impressions and click-throughs, but can also report on scroll-throughs and on how much time someone spends on the ad.”
The company’s digital presence is felt on every available platform: mobile, tablet, email, and video. Faust said, “We’re in a two-paper market but with digital, we’re fortunate to pretty much own the state.”
He added that, “As technology changes, user expectations change. It’s different today than it was. I’m not going to read a story, then tune in on TV at 6 p.m. or 10 p.m. to see it. Today, people want to see a video illustrating the story, and they want to be able to see it immediately.”
Before site visitors see a video, they see an interstitial video that, based on their user history, is targeted to their demographic. These are 15- or 30-second videos that play as soon as users click on the video they wish to see.
“The technology we have now,” Faust said, “allows advertisers to target a certain user. Now we can be more strategic. Radio drive time and TV prime time are not factors with us. The whole broadcast notion of ratings and costs isn’t a factor. It’s less about daypart. If a user is reading a story and clicks elsewhere on the site, that user will get the video ad that is appropriate for him or her.”
Be The Teacher
One of the larger publishing companies in the country today is GateHouse Media, Inc. GateHouse owns 79 daily newspapers with total paid circulation of approximately 657,000, 257 weekly newspapers (published up to three times per week) with total paid circulation of approximately 493,000, and total free circulation of approximately 694,000, as well as 95 shoppers (generally advertising- only publications) with total circulation of approximately 1.5 million, more than 405 locally focused websites, which puts their franchises on the Internet, and yellow page directories that serve approximately 1.2 million people.
David P. Arkin, GateHouse vice president of content and audience, manages a staff that, he said, “crafts content development strategy — Facebook and videos, for example, and such practices as the number of updates papers should do every day, the number of videos to post. We work on content management with content partners like the AP.”
Arkin relies heavily on the people who work in GateHouse’s properties. “We try our best to engage as many of our editors in the process as we can,” he said. “We have to put together programs that are doable and within our resources.”
Engaging staff is of critical importance to GateHouse. The company has an “Inner Circle” that evaluates and recognizes excellence in its papers (ghnewsroom.com/blogs/innercircle). There is also a blog (ghnewsroom.com/blogs/gatehouse-news-insider) to keep newsrooms informed, and the company publishes what Arkin described as “a huge handbook that we have built for our newsrooms, and there’s another dealing only with new initiatives.”
GateHouse’s niche publications are designed for each paper that distributes them. So, for example, the Breast Cancer Awareness publication carries stories of breast cancer survivors and appropriate advertising from every locale where it is distributed. In addition to that one, the six other niche publications include a bridal book in January, a Martin Luther King Jr. Day publication, and a salute to nurses. These contain what Arkin described as “evergreen content.”
GateHouse reaches out to the community in a variety of ways. Arkin points to the Rockford Register-Star in Illinois as an example. “We offer social media classes for residents and business owners about how to use Facebook, how to set up an account, involve others in it, and how to monetize the account.”
Each day at 4 p.m., Arkin said, “we post a column online about what to watch on TV that night.
“And, we can react to news very quickly. We have a newspaper in Joplin, Mo.,” he said. “When the tornadoes struck last year, we immediately created a website for each of our newspapers with information and provided a portal readers could use to give to the people in Joplin.”
Coupons have become a big factor in engaging readers and driving business to advertisers. “We also have a coupon initiative,” Arkin said. “Every Sunday the skybox on the front page of our papers has the amount of savings with that day’s coupons.”
Looking back on what he wrote in 2008, Albert Sun, who is now working in the digital field at the New York Times, recalled, “When I wrote that, the newspaper business was all about surviving. Now, it’s about transitioning into a new world. Instead of panic, today there’s concern about the best way to go about doing what needs to be done.”
Ellen Sterling is an award-winning journalist. A New Yorker, she’s now living in Las Vegas, where she blogs on the Huffington Post, reviews shows and movies, and freelances. Reach her at email@example.com.