The Newspaper Industry is Having a Brand Crisis

Illustration by Tony O. Champagne
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

Newspaper media companies continue to have a brand crisis on their hands and seem to either be oblivious to the problem or lack the will to do something about it. The problem has many roots—most notably (and regrettably) the media’s (including newspapers) totally one-sided coverage of their own industry. How many articles about newspaper layoffs, circulation declines, ownership changes and financial woes have you read? How many articles about the growth and local dominance of newspaper media companies in the digital environment? As an industry, newspapers fail to celebrate their successes and fixate on the negatives. And that is what gets public attention.

I’ve written elsewhere about the misperception of newspapers as the proverbial dinosaur of media. Doomed to extinction. Well, newspapers are indeed emulating the dinosaur in remarkable and innovative ways—because dinosaurs are not extinct. They’ve simply adapted. We are surrounded daily by dinosaurs, we just don’t recognize them. Their modern-day descendants thrive today as perhaps the most prolific and adaptive (10,000+ species) land vertebrate on earth—birds!

Each person’s perception is their reality, no matter how wrong-headed it is. Let’s face it, mention “newspaper reader” to the average millennial and they will immediately visualize an aged senior citizen in a rocking chair squinting at a black and white newspaper (only a slight exaggeration). That’s their perception. Reality? Nielsen Scarborough reported in 2015 that nearly six in 10 millennials consume newspaper content in print or online each week. And the strongest age demographic for newspapers’ digital content is adults age 25 to 34. Millennials are great consumers of newspaper content. They just don’t recognize it. It’s like seeing birds and not recognizing dinosaurs. Newspapers have evolved to present content in many different forms. They’ve become ubiquitous. They’re everywhere, but people do not recognize them in their evolved forms.

There’s a not-so-subtle lesson to learn in the dinosaur/newspaper analogy. One of the great ironies of the newspaper industry is that we preach and teach to our advertising clients about best practice in advertising and marketing communications yet do not practice what we preach. Newspaper media companies generally fail with a capital “F” to invest appropriately in their own brand identity, visibility and value. They’re not communicating adequately about their evolution. We can forgive dinosaurs/birds for their lack of marketing, PR and branding savvy. The newspaper industry has no excuse.


What is Your Mission?

Having lived in New Jersey for a little over a decade, I’ve had to deal with a lot of late night TV wisecracks about my adopted state. Recently, particularly during the presidential election, I’ve had to break out the Kevlar body armor to avoid being bruised by similarly distorted, misleading and insulting remarks about newspapers. When Jimmy Fallon said, “Out of the 100 largest newspapers in America, Hillary has been endorsed by 57, while Trump has only been endorsed by two. The most shocking part of that story is that America still has 100 newspapers.” I wanted to scream out loud, “There’re a hell of a lot more people reading newspapers than watching your damn show!”  A quick check of Scarborough/ Nielsen numbers confirmed that newspapers’ print audience alone is about 2,300 percent larger than Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” on an average weekday.

When I was asked, “What would a national marketing campaign for the newspaper industry look like?” I knew that the answer would not be simple. In fact, I’ve started to write this article three times and each time have found myself deep in the weeds of vision/mission statements, the First Amendment, consumer behavior and the culture of the newspaper media industry. I guess going deep into this subject may not be the best way to begin my response, but you’ll excuse one brief digression into the importance that your organization have a vision and a mission statement that guides your messaging, your employees and your thinking.

Let’s look what some high-profile companies are doing in the area of communicating their mission communicating value.

Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Facebook’s mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” These mission statements constitute the foundation of organizational unity of purpose for two of the leading information related businesses in America—businesses that specialize in helping consumers access information and communities of interest, respectively. Virtually every employee at either company can quote their mission on demand and speak to what it means.

I seriously doubt the average newspaper/news media employee can do the same. In fact, I’d bet that if you chose two newspaper employees from different departments they’d disagree on what the mission is. Has your news media organization embraced a mission/vision for the future that provides a common sense of purpose? If your news organization has no vision for the future to share with your employees and customers, you can’t blame them for assuming your organization has a very limited future. A unified sense of purpose is essential to the morale and productivity of your organization, not to mention how it represents itself to the public. This sense of purpose is usually summarized in a mission statement.

A good mission statement will be aspirational (aim high, set ambitious, desirable goals), inspirational (evoke emotional buy-in internally and externally) and motivational (guide actions by identifying goals). Believe it or not, the goals that most motivate employees are those that represent a “higher calling.” People—both employees and customers—deep down want to feel that they are a part of something that will somehow make the world a better place. Again, read the Google and Facebook mission statements above. They do not speak to market share, world dominance or profitability, but they are ambitious and inspiring and speak to improving the lives of others. As Goethe said, “Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”


Communicating Value

So, what do I suggest news media do to communicate value? Once again, let’s look at some high-profile companies and what they’ve done. Rather than relative newcomers like Google and Facebook, let’s look at a company/brand that shares some of the attributes and challenges newspaper companies must deal with. A legacy brand, once dominant, that lost a great deal of its mojo, and has recently made significant strides to regain consumer regard, respect and sales—Chevrolet.

I was beginning my newspaper career (hey, I was still a teenager) in the mid-70s when Chevrolet launched one of the most successful branding campaigns in TV advertising history. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet clearly branded Chevrolet as America’s car. It wrapped the Chevrolet brand in the American flag, associating love of country, patriotism, family values and American culture with Chevrolet brand loyalty. It implied that to buy any other car would be Un-American. The imagery (diverse people of all ages, iconic landmarks from the Statue of Liberty to the Golden Gate Bridge) and nearly hypnotic musical jingle emotionally appealed to a nation nostalgic for better days (remember, this was just post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Nixon). It was so successful that Chevrolet has never abandoned it and periodically revisits it to keep the connection contemporary. Chevrolet closed its commercial with the statement “Chevrolet Makes Sense For America.” A free press makes even more sense.

The American newspaper industry could and should take a page from this campaign. Patriotism and love of country are as strong as ever. “Make America Great Again” clearly resonated in the recent election. Americans salute, pledge allegiance, serve, sacrifice, and tragically, some die for their country. I am not trivializing the patriotic commitment when I suggest that the newspaper brand itself as part of what makes our country (and your local community) great. No other industry is as firmly rooted in the foundation of our nation as the free press. No other industry is specifically mentioned in the constitution of the United States. Be bold enough to wrap your news media brand in the American flag—motherhood, apple pie and (insert your brand here.) The First Amendment mission (to inform and involve) has awesome marketing potential to go along with the awesome responsibility. It is indeed aspirational, inspirational and motivational.  A good local newspaper—in print or online—deserves its place in the average American’s daily routine.

I’m not done with Chevrolet. In 2015 and 2016, Chevrolet addressed poor product perceptions by promoting its status as the most award-winning car company. No jingle, no nostalgia, and the emotional appeal invoked what it’s like to be associated with a winner. Chevrolet asked “real people” what they were looking for in a car and voila!—Chevrolet has the car you want. Fuel efficient, dependable, stylish, safe—no matter what the car shopper is looking for, Chevrolet has the best-in-class vehicle. They also subtly employ the creative strategy of cognitive dissonance. It is clear in their commercials that the car shoppers do not expect that Chevrolet will be revealed as the car of their dreams. Confronted with facts contrary to their perceptions, they are compelled to change their perceptions to match the facts. This is a strategy newspaper media companies could and should use to change their image.


Beyond Clever Advertising

I could give you more examples of how newspapers could improve their lot by improving their image. But each newspaper needs to take stock of their organization and their marketplace and determine what message is best fits their brand. And they need to do more than just field clever advertising.

A banking executive in New Jersey once said in introducing me, “If it’s news and it’s New Jersey, it’s in the Star-Ledger. If it’s not in the Star-Ledger, it’s either not New Jersey or it’s not news.” Essentially, she was acknowledging that if the newspaper didn’t cover a story, it either wasn’t relevant to our community or it just wasn’t going to be covered. If the newspaper broke a story though, radio, TV and digital media would pick it up. The story became a subject of public discourse.

A friend/media executive I chatted with in developing my thoughts for this article voiced a similar perspective. Having served as president/publisher at three major newspaper media companies, she shared my frustration with the lack of regard and respect for newspapers’ role in our country. “If we (newspapers) simply stopped reporting the news for say, three days, the other news media wouldn’t be able to function,” she said. “So many Americans get their news from newspapers without ever reading our content directly because other media ‘re-package’ our coverage. And when a millennial ends up on my website through a Google search, nine times out of 10 they think they got their information from Google.”

I visited with several newspaper media CEOs in developing perspective for this article. I was encouraged that each was convinced that despite difficult times for the industry, the local newspaper (be it the New York Times or a community daily, print or digital) continues to set the public agenda and has a future. They acknowledge that the evolutionary process is at times traumatic and stressful. But there was quiet, cautious optimism despite the harsh realities of the past decade. But by and large, there was only head shaking when the subject of a national marketing campaign for newspapers was brought up. “It would be like herding cats,” said one executive.

So, what is the most likely “solution scenario?”

  • Getting hundreds of local newspaper companies to embrace a common theme and march in unison is unlikely.
  • Getting the major publicly and privately held corporate entities that own most of the major newspapers in America to agree on a common theme is just as unlikely.
  • Getting the local companies or the corporate owners to spend the money to get the message out is even more unlikely. Amidst declining revenues and tightened margins, too many are focused on the short-term challenge of delivering shareholder value in the current reporting period. They have little money to invest in the long-term future of the industry.
  • The likelihood that a philanthropically minded Jeff Bezos (whose net worth exceeds the total annual revenue of the newspaper industry) will lead the way and foot the bill is also, well, nihil.

Major trade associations are not going to deliver a solution either.

  • INMA (International News Media Association) does an excellent job addressing its mission of identifying and sharing “best practice” in audience, revenue and brand development. The organization strives to help its members find and implement solutions, but it doesn’t have the resources to solve problems for them.
  • The News Media Alliance (the newly-reincarnated Newspaper Association of America) claims to be “the voice of the news media industry.” There is a lot of great information on their site and they, like INMA, work to assist the evolving newspaper industry, but they are struggling with their own mission/branding and funding issues.

For the most likely “solution scenario” let me refer to a statement made earlier in this article. Each newspaper needs to take stock of their organization and their marketplace and determine what message is best fits their brand. And they need to do more than just field clever advertising. They need to embrace a culture of constant learning and constructive change that celebrates success. Cutting costs (deconstructive change) is a short-term survival strategy. Staying on top requires that strategic cost cuts be coupled with strategic investments (constructive change) and leadership that has a vision for the future. Branding and image building, through advertising and behavior, will have to rely on local news organizations.

Nowhere was this more evident than in my dialogue with George R. Hearst III, publisher and president of the Times Union media company in Albany, N.Y. Hearst and his team in Albany invested in new, high tech presses in 2013 when others were mapping their exit strategy from the print medium. In 2017, “Team Albany” will open the new Hearst Media Center, a state of the art facility featuring a multimedia auditorium, smaller conference rooms, a new building entry/reception area and a fully resourced catering operation.

“We intend to place the Times Union literally and figuratively at the center of civic conversation,” Hearst told me. “We’ll host press conferences and town hall meetings, micro-job fairs and digital marketing seminars. This is where we will inform, involve, inspire and engage through debate and dialogue. In Albany, we’re shaping our future. We’re not waiting for the future to shape us.”

I hope there are many, many other like-minded newspaper executives out there if we want to change the perception of the newspaper industry and repair our brand.

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9 thoughts on “The Newspaper Industry is Having a Brand Crisis

  • January 3, 2017 at 5:19 am

    Our divided country is looking for one thing “trust”. Who do we trust when politicians say one thing, then do another, when pollsters predict an outcome, then the opposite happens. What about drug makers who say a drug will save you, but the side effects can kill you. And of course, the fake news popularity. Who can we trust? If “trust” is not a united mission for newspapers, then I don’t know what is.

    • January 3, 2017 at 4:07 pm

      Happy New Year, Gary! Thanks for the comment.

  • January 3, 2017 at 8:50 am

    The newspaper is the only place where you can get information that is not in 30 second or less sound bites. The reporting is, and needs to continue to be in depth and reliable, not glitzy and glamorous. Research and accurate, unbiased, truthful reporting must continue to be the hallmark of the newspaper industry. This is expensive, but it is also critical to the continuation of our free society. In a time when anyone can say anything (no matter how outlandish) and be believed, newspapers are more important than ever!

  • January 3, 2017 at 9:09 am

    Excellent article. The problem for the past two decades has been the newspaper corporate leaders do not really care about the integrity of the written product. Their main concern has been the return of investment to their stockholders.
    They look at the printed product as a cost – not as an important institution or at the value of true journalism.
    Our industry must invest in promoting the written product which is still very profitable. Sadly, I do not see this happening in the near future. Because this costs money and if there is a cost to it – they cut it!
    There is a future for the newspaper industry if the corporate leaders would promote the integrity of newspaper journalism versus the blogs that are written on google, Facebook etc. Combining an improved written product with digital.

  • January 3, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Excellent…. EXCELLENT!!!! ….piece. Worth printing and taping up on the wall of every newspaper employee and supporting vendor! Thank you!

  • January 3, 2017 at 9:47 am

    Great points made in this article. One of the leading problems I see with the industry is that newspapers, by and large, don’t market themselves for one reason or another–for example, in the city where I live, there’s one major daily newspaper and many people go to it for local news. However, other community newspapers (dailies, weeklies and bimonthlies) exist and a lot of folks don’t even know about them because they aren’t putting their own names out there. Small papers are often owned by companies that are struggling so hard to even make the bills that branding falls by the wayside. But if a company does its best to let folks know its out there, it is working for you and the people who work for it are part of the community in which the newspaper/magazine is published, then (one would hope) advertisers would increase and so would rack purchases and subscriptions. A newspaper today cannot afford to lose its web/social media presence, either, and if it doesn’t have one, or doesn’t consistently keep up its accounts, then people often forget it even exists or consider it less credible than its competitors, who often have consistently updated websites and Facebook and Twitter accounts.

  • January 5, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    The most important part of the newspaper industry is still critical to our society…the professional, in-depth, impartial reporting. No one does it better.

    It’s the method of delivery and the business model that are quickly becoming antiquated. As long as newspapers hold on to print, they will be perceived as dinosaurs, no matter what other victories they may claim.

    Shut down the presses, strip out all the production and distribution, and protect the industry’s most valuable asset…the reporting.

  • January 11, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    Good article, however it is the responsibility of the News Media Alliance to support the newspaper industry, especially with advertisers. David Chavern has failed miserably here. In his year+ effort he has been invisible, providing a low energy and even lower impact effort. Except of course in learning how to make holiday ornaments from physical newspapers -yes this is featured on the news media alliance website. Member papers must be proud of their product being featured this way! and it is, I guess, one way to get people & ADVERTISERS to care about newspapers again. Yes this speaks volumes to the highly paid NMA leadership and I guess in the near future we will learn of other uses for physical newspapers from the NMA -anyone have pets!


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