Telling stories is still the lifeblood of the newspaper business, but industry executives are worried they’re not doing a good job explaining one of the biggest stories of the day: The turmoil roiling their own industry.
In a remarkably bracing pep talk to his fellow publishers, Jay R. Smith, president of Cox Newspapers Inc. and outgoing chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, opened the industry’s annual meeting Monday with a command to “stop whining” about the woes facing the business and “start winning.”
“The world changed a lot, and we changed a little,” Smith said in an opening address to publishers at the NAA conference. “It’s OK to acknowledge our missteps and move on, but learn and grow as you do.”
The No. 2 player in the industry, Knight Ridder Inc., was forced to put itself up for sale following a shareholder revolt, and the industry is generally seen in decline as more readers and advertisers go online. Meanwhile, newspaper print operations, while still very profitable, are looking less robust amid falling circulation, sluggish advertising growth and higher costs for newsprint.
In an effort to turn around perceptions, the NAA is embarking on an advertising campaign intended to make the case for newspaper advertising as an effective way to reach people, especially as it becomes easier to skip ads in other media with devices like digital video recorders.
The NAA hired The Martin Agency, an advertising firm that came up with campaigns for UPS and the auto insurer Geico, to design an ad program aimed at promoting the effectiveness of newspapers as an advertising medium. The campaign began March 20.
“You really need to get your swagger back,” Earl Cox, chief strategy officer of The Martin Agency, said in a speech to the publishers. At the same time, Cox said newspapers also need to combat the impression that they are a static, “old school” medium.
Publishers also heard complaints from advertisers who say it is difficult to buy newspaper advertising compared with other media, particularly when more than one newspaper is involved.
“Why can’t I buy print and online together?” said Andrew Swinand, executive vice president at Starcom Worldwide, a major advertising-buying agency in Chicago. Swinand, who spoke on a panel Sunday, also expressed frustration at having to communicate with newspaper advertising departments by fax while his staff interacts with other media outlets like TV electronically.
Making newspaper advertising easier to buy and catering better to the evolving needs of advertisers, particularly as they boost spending online, is a topic that came up frequently in conversations with executives at the conference.
“Newspapers are holding on to their national audiences better (than other media), but the negative side is we’re more difficult to buy,” Gary Pruitt, the CEO of The McClatchy Co., said in an interview. “The industry is aware of it.”
Pruitt declined to comment on the biggest topic of the day in the newspaper business: Who will buy the 12 Knight Ridder newspapers McClatchy plans to sell as part of its $4.5 billion deal to acquire the San Jose, Calif.-based company. McClatchy is also assuming $2 billion in debt from Knight Ridder.
McClatchy is evaluating bids, and has said it hopes to conclude deals for the papers quickly. It plans to keep the other 20 papers in the Knight Ridder group, making it the second-largest company in the newspaper business in terms of circulation, behind Gannett Co.
Another topic receiving buzz at this year’s conference is working toward creating a single method for buying online advertising across the vast network of newspaper Web sites.
An NAA study released Monday showed that unique visitors to newspaper Web sites jumped 21 percent from January to December 2005, yet selling advertising across those sites as a unit is still difficult, and creating a solution for that is another urgent issue that needs to be addressed.
“The industry has not yet come up with an ideal solution” to that problem, says Jason Klein, the head of the Newspaper National Network, a group that coordinates national advertising packages for newspaper groups.
Newspapers need to offer those viewers to advertisers in some kind of a “neat package,” Klein said, but it’s hard to do with such a variety of different technical standards and measurements for online traffic across the hundreds of newspaper Web sites in the country. “It’s been very undersold,” he said.