By: Ken Smickle
Whenever i hear the doom-and-gloom prognostications about the future of newspapers, my mind flashes to Philadelphia. The city, whose history embodies so much of our nation’s origins, is also home to one of my favorite newspapers, itself a historic institution. For 125 years it has steadfastly served the residents of the City of Brotherly Love, delivering the vital news and information that support the principles of a free society and empower its citizens.
I’ve never heard any gossip or insinuation about whether this newspaper is going to survive the pressures of our recession, the onslaught of technology, or the shifting whims of a new generation of readers. The paper publishes every weekday, continues to diversify its information with regional sections, and still offers not one, but two color magazine supplements. And yes, it even maintains a Web site.
It has never hired an investment banking firm to shop for angel investors in order to be rescued from economic hardships. There have been no repeated employee cuts of its considerable editorial and administrative staffs like those imposed by its rival daily newspapers across town.
The newspaper I’m referring to is The Philadelphia Tribune, and if you haven’t heard of it, there is a good reason why. the Tribune’s primary readership is African Americans. I say primary, because the city’s business community is also very familiar with the newspaper and regularly advertises in its pages to tap into the $25 billion black households in the Philadelphia area earn annually.
So what can the Philadelphia Tribune teach publishers of general market dailies about success? For that matter, what can the newspaper industry learn from the 200-plus black newspapers across the country about survival? A lot, apparently, since not a single black newspaper has gone out of business in the last four years.
Keep in mind, black newspapers have had to sustain a business model that lacked all the financial luxuries of their general market daily counterparts. They’ve never enjoyed the sort of ad revenue that compares with other local media. As privately held companies, there was no way to incite Wall Street for investment. They do have, however, the one thing that still matters most in the media business, and that is a trusted pact with their audience that they will always act in the readers’ best interest by informing them in ways other outlets will not.
It would be easy to simply define the success of the Philadelphia Tribune as one of the best examples of well- executed niche media, but that misses the larger point. In an era when phrases such as “engagement” and “social media” are casually tossed about in conversations, black newspapers continue to be supported by readers and advertisers not because research guides the papers’ fundamental mission. It works because those who run the paper come from the community it serves.
News cannot be packaged, especially in this age of competitive, infinite information options. What can be marketed – and used effectively by advertisers – is that trusted connection and understanding that a media vehicle (including a newspaper) can develop with its audience.
Success comes from gathering and delivering news and information with integrity to an audience who identify your paper as the best source of such content.
To paraphrase an old adage, newspapers need to find a niche and fill it. They may, in fact, need to find multiple niches and fulfill the needs of a few different audiences.
The industry can learn much from black newspapers. Most are weeklies, and they took what the big dailies couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver seven days of the week and built businesses providing what African Americans wanted with just one paper a week.
One lesson might be to rethink the concept of editorial sections. Maybe they should be even more specialized. Does the frequency have to be weekly, or even regular? Whose information needs are not being well met by other newspapers, magazines or the Internet? If newspapers are truly in the business of providing news content, what other audiences can be informed by taking a deeper dive to serve their need to know.
It was 183 years ago this March that two fledging newspaper publishers, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, offered this idea in their first edition of Freedom’s Journal: “We wish to plead our own cause. For too long have others spoken for us.” There are others besides African Americans still waiting for the same respect and acknowledgement from the newspaper industry. And therein lies the opportunity.