NAA Wraps Up on a Feisty Note

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By: Jennifer Saba

There were signs that the industry is finally taking an offensive position as the Newspaper Association of America’s annual conference came to a close on Tuesday afternoon.

Outgoing NAA Chairman Jay R. Smith quipped this afternoon, as he passed the torch to The Washington Post’s Boisfeuillet Jones, Jr., that he felt like Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Smith was wearing the coonskin hat that former chairman Gregg K. Jones gave him last year – a NAA tradition where the departing chief gives a gift to the newcomer (Bo Jones got a Cox cap from Smith).

And while the industry has been through some rough patches over the past few years – most notably the circulation scandals – this time there was a sense that something had to be done about the “piling on”– a phrase heard often here in Chicago, starting with AP executives Tom Curley and Burl Osborne early Monday.

The conference, over and over, acknowledged that the industry has to get the word out that the medium is viable and necessary.

For starters, the NAA unveiled its advertising campaign and strategy to reach out to media planners and buyers to explain that newspapers are relevant (and a good buy). While the creative is a tad on the antiquated-side, with turn of the century (the twentieth century) illustrations, the presentation for newspaper ad executives that pushes an easier way to buy the medium has been well received.

A Monday session that addressed aggregating and segmenting audiences was packed with at least 120 executives. Barbara Cohen, president of Kannon Consulting who led the panel, spoke frankly about what papers need to do–and more important, what they are doing wrong. She opened the session explaining that she was going to go over points that in other industries would be considered too basic. “You can’t please all the people all the time,” she said. “Once you understand that you can address it selectively. You can’t average.”

On the sweet spot demographic she said, “I’m tired of hearing newspapers that say they are going after 18-to-34-year olds. Which ones?” Cohen asked. She flashed research slides that showed the demographic encompasses so many different types of people–that 18-to-34 is not a code word for a single urbanite who watches the Colbert Report.

The panel was timely in that the NAA released its latest numbers from the NADbase showing that newspaper Web sites increased their papers’ reach of 25-to-34 year-olds by 14% and 18-to-24 year-olds by 9%. Cohen said that for this demo, the standard for online customer service should be banks. Most people in that target do their banking online and come to expect that level of service, care and ease in other online experiences, she explained.

Leon Levitt, vice president of digital media for Cox Newspapers, illustrated how his company is focusing on 25-to-34 year-olds. “We would love to get 18 or 19 year-olds but it’s a big difference [in age] from a 34 year-old.” His points: Measure Web sites using past seven= day data (not past 30 days). Not all traffic is equal. Pay attention to where the traffic comes from.

The most moving session was during the Monday morning meeting on publishing in a time of crisis.

Ashton Phelps, Jr., publisher of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, drew a heart-felt standing ovation after he gave a passionate presentation to newspaper executives on how his paper kept on going during and after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. “The truth is we still have not found the bottom,” he said. “We are still riding Katrina’s winds.”

The paper is repairing a damaged circulation and advertising base and wrestling with a need for labor. Phelps said that when advertisers call to place help-wanted ads, they try and poach Times-Picayune employees.

Tourism is the main driver to the city’s economy and Phelps asked NAA CEO John Sturm to “bring more NAA conventions” to New Orleans: “For each of you, please come see us.”

Later on Tuesday, Advance Publications President Donald E. Newhouse said, “We will continue to own the Times-Picayune come hell or high water.”

Ricky Matthews, president and publisher of The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., said that he watched people get out of food and water lines to get a newspaper the weeks following Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, the Sun Herald has gained readers who have never read a paper before– a story that shows the relevancy of medium said to be dying.

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