By: ALAN D. MUTTER
“What trees do they plant?” the original Major Richard J. Daley once demanded angrily of his critics in the Chicago press.
He had a point. Anyone can find fault with City Hall, but it’s another thing to run a big, complex city in a challenging time of change. That didn’t stop us from criticizing the mayor, of course. But he did have a point.
And so do the newspaper publishers who occasionally ask me the same question. In response, here are eight strategic seedlings to help newspapers thrive:
Because every media business depends on attracting an audience and selling it for money, newspapers honestly and objectively must understand who their readers are — and, even more significantly, who their readers are not. Newspapers simply cannot rest on the residual power of their brands or milk the waning reach in their markets. They have to find fresh ways to delight existing print and digital customers at the same time they identify strategies to attract former readers and non-readers.
The one lesson we have learned in the age of media fragmentation is that one-size-fits-all media won’t please all the people all the time. Newspapers must develop cost-effective niche media to serve carefully targeted audiences coveted by advertisers. While the profits of many of the niche products may not equal the historic margins of the flagship brands, a well-conceived portfolio will achieve economies of scale and assure a healthy and defensible future for the business.
For an expanding number of people of all ages, media consumption increasingly is active and not passive. Newspapers have to abandon traditional, voice-of-God journalism in favor of an ongoing dialogue with their readers. This includes embracing reader comments, aggregating content from disparate sources, soliciting articles from multiple vantage points and sometimes even serving as organizers of community forums and debates. Instead of putting walls around their content, publishers should encourage remixes, mash-ups and other user customization. Remember: Remixing is the sincerest form of engagement.
Modern consumers view the digital media as a living, breathing community in which they have a rightful voice. Publishers hoping to have an ongoing relationship with those consumers must incorporate social capabilities liberally into their products. That means digital applications must include sharing, commenting and reviewing capabilities to cross-pollinate content and audiences among sites. This will pay dividends in increased traffic, as well as valuable in-bound links to boost rankings on Google and the other search engines. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Digg and other social media should be viewed as partners, not competitors. Within reason, news sites need to include such game-like capabilities as multi-user play and leader boards to stimulate ongoing interest.
Like it or not, we live in an age of attitude throughout the media, from Rush Limbaugh to Jon Stewart and everyone in between. Newspapers look like fuddy-duddies when they steadfastly cleave to a studied grayness while the rest of the highly competitive media landscape is filled with heat and light (though the heat and light, sad to say, in some cases is not the same as substantive illumination). To hold their own amid the hubbub, newspapers have to project personality into their writing, graphic packaging and marketing.
Newspapers need to work like there is no tomorrow to solidify relationships with their readers and advertisers. Otherwise, there might be no tomorrow. For readers, newspapers need to emphasize authoritative, incisive, thorough and compassionate reporting on local issues – and a relentless focus on the quality of life in the community. To woo advertisers, the traditional themes still ring true: an engaged audience, a trusted environment, efficient market coverage, reliable delivery and superior customer service.
With the economy likely to remain in the doldrums for the foreseeable future, newspapers ought to be seeking to deliver a discernible return on investment for readers by helping them make or save money – ideally, doing both at the same time. This can take the form of shopping coverage, consumer advocacy, career advice and personal-finance reporting. Quality coverage of small-business issues not only will please a large and engaged cadre of influential readers, but also could turn a fair number of small business owners into advertisers. Don’t forget that 28% of all small business owners in the United States are women, while a combined 17% of small enterprises are owned by African Americans, Asians and Hispanics.
Grow a bold culture
To succeed, newspapers need to cultivate internal cultures of openness, customer service and innovation – but disciplined innovation based on the following sequence: (1.) identify likely prospective audiences and advertisers; (2.) develop a comprehensive go-to-market plan; (3.) construct a detailed operating budget; and (4.) build and launch products only after the first three steps suggest the project has a significant chance of success.
When you go for it, go for it. Don’t stint on the fertilizer – a proper level of investment – that makes every business grow.
Alan D. Mutter is a newspaper editor-turned Silicon Valley CEO-turned newspaper consultant. He writes Reflections of a Newsosaur, a popular industry blog at www.newsosaur.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.