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By: Mark Fitzgerald And Jennifer Saba

From Wall Street analysts to bloggers keyboarding in their bathrobes, from sophisticated customer-segmentation market studies to cocktail party chatter, newspapers these days hear a single message: Change or die. Change like your audience has changed, like America has changed. Or watch it all slip away ? the profit margins that are the envy of oil companies, the overstuffed Sunday paper that lands with a thud, the credibility that makes something news when the newspaper says it’s news.

And change big, radically.

But are any papers really following that advice? Or are they applying it the wrong way?

Newspapers belatedly got the message about the Web, and they have pushed massive resources ? and breaking stories ? online. But what about the good old print product, still the cash cow that feeds, and will feed, the Internet and other new media at least for another decade or two?

Impatience with the pace of change is growing among the associations and academies set up to promote newspapers. Newspapers need to get on the stick, says blunt-speaking Earl Wilkinson, executive director of International Newspaper Marketing Association (INMA). “The days of ‘If you build it, they will come’ are dead,” Wilkinson says from his Dallas headquarters. “We’re just now getting around to making the changes that should have been made 15 years ago. It’s an indictment of our industry.”

For Hazel Reinhardt, director of market research for Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, the big question is, what will it take to get newspapers to take risks? “This is an industry that has always played follow-the-leader,” she says. “Given that long history of copying what other people do, until somebody starts doing something that’s obvious and successful, we have this whole industry that’s just at a standstill.”

Yet there are stirrings of a revolution, sometimes in unexpected places. And there are rumblings of newspapers thinking the unthinkable in certain areas ? and throwing off the conventional wisdom that doesn’t seem to be working anymore.

Take brand, for example. After a century or so of exposing readers to mottos like “Give light and the people will find their way” or “The Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire,” newspapers have built great brands. Not surprisingly, when faced with a shrinking audience, the industry adopted the mantra “extend the brand.”

Forget that, more and more newspapers are saying.

They’re extending themselves all right, but they’re hiding the brand. You won’t find any mention of The Orange County (Calif.) Register in SqueezeOC, its tab for hipsters. And the kids addicted to the Craigslist-like “Bakotopia” Web community in Bakersfield, Calif., almost certainly don’t know that it was created by the paper their parents get, The Bakersfield Californian.

Many dailies are mulling over moves once considered heresy. For one: Maybe they shouldn’t publish every day. Maybe they’d be better off without the Tuesday paper or the skinny Saturday edition they shove aside on the racks at 11 a.m. for the Sunday bulldog.

Some experts back this move. “I have heard for many years that every newspaper has a plan for something like that,” says INMA’s Wilkinson. “But history is a great burden for our industry. Becoming anything less than a daily is a hard pill to swallow.”

Barbara Cohen, president and founder of Kannon Consulting in Chicago, declares that she’s “very bullish” about the weekend paper. But Monday through Friday? Not so much ? unless newspapers start making some big shifts in their daily strategies.

Many papers are responding with tweaks or whacks. Newspapers fought radio and then TV by being more “in-depth” or more “complete.” Now papers like the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News not only toss out the stock listings, they eliminate the previously “untouchable” TV listings ? and then watch readership stop shrinking. Are baseball box scores next?

At the same time, some newspapers have tinkered with the paid daily to their detriment, tarting it up to attract the young. But younger readers in many places are rolling their eyes and taking a pass ? while older readers are put off by the flashy makeovers. Maybe they should think young on the Web, and respect the elders in print. Go where the proven ? not the theoretical ? readers are.

Consider the readership stats. The data show it’s not just young adults ? the segment most often blamed for declining readership ? who are shunning paid dailies. According to Scarborough Research (on behalf of the Newspaper Association of America), the number of readers aged 18-24 slipped about 5 percentage points over a seven-year period. That happens to be the same rate of decline for readers that are 55 plus. And among adults 35-54, readership dropped the most, over nine percentage points.

“I have been asked many times, do you think newspapers should chase younger demographics in print? My answer is, absolutely no,” says Lauren Rich Fine, an analyst with Merrill Lynch.

Merrill Brown, an industry consultant with MMB Media in New York, is just as absolute. “There is close to no evidence that suggests that today’s young people are going to subscribe to newspapers,” he says.

Fine says the issue at heart is the waning appeal of a mass-market medium in the form of a paid print daily: “There has been a lot of discussion in the industry if you can come up with a product that is mass market. The general feeling is that becomes increasingly difficult.”

Even those papers that continue down the road of “one-size-fits-all” have detractors inside their ranks. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has no intentions of narrowing its target audience. Rather than retrench and focus on loyal readers, the paper wants to net those who slip in and out of purchasing the Los Angeles Times. “We are just beginning to figure that out,” says Leo Wolinsky, managing editor at the Los Angeles Times.

But even he says he’s dubious about the direction: “I’m interested to see if we can make progress with moderate readers, but I have my doubts.” He thinks the occasional readers do read the “paper” ? just not in print.

Counting on the boomer bulge

There’s a lot of talk about focusing on that older core audience ? or at the very least making an effort to find out who that is. This could reverse the popular course: Instead of the paid daily being all things to all people, maybe it makes more sense to make sure those currently reading the paper ? baby boomers and their parents ? are happy with the print product.

Matt Thornhill, president of the aptly named Boomer Project, a marketing research firm in Richmond, Va., is tired of hearing newspapers blubber about losing young readers when there are so many older readers. “Our recommendation is to segment the market growing in size as they age out,” he says. “If you don’t have a strategy, you are battling for eyeballs in a marketplace that is flat. For the next 10 years, you’d better not give up targeting older readers.”

Indeed, more newspapers are embracing that strategy for their so-called “core product,” saying, in effect: This ain’t your father’s newspaper ? but it’s for your father.

There’s a lot at stake, says media economist Miles Groves of MG Strategic Research. If a paper’s most loyal readership feels abandoned, they will end up going online, he says, “the same way youth is going to go.”

Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Ginocchio likes the idea of using the paid daily to go after boomers while creating other products for other segments of the market. He argues that the paid daily is going to be smaller and more expensive in the future. Migrating from print to the Web will be tricky, he warns: “The biggest task is getting rid of print, but print pays the bills.” His rough estimate is that it will be another 10 years before the Internet can truly support a newspaper. And that’s assuming costs stay in check.

In the meantime, Ginocchio tells publishers they should be “hyper-paranoid” about maintaining the print edition, adding, “You can’t give up on it too early.”

Of course, some think the analysts ? or, more accurately, the Wall Street investors who listen to the analysts ? are themselves part of the problem. “Wall Street tells newspapers we’re not innovative enough, and then when you spend on innovation, they punish you” for quarterly results that miss expectations, says John Kimball, senior vice president/marketing for the NAA.

Try Anything Once

In his frequent road shows extolling the power of newspapers, Kimball reminds publishers and advertisers alike that 83% of U.S. adults use the newspaper in a typical week, and that people overwhelmingly cite the newspaper as the medium in which they actually welcome advertising.

Kimball suggests the undeniable sense of crisis has also energized the industry: “There’s a willingness to innovate today that I don’t think you’d have found even five years ago. There used to be a lot of crying and gnashing of teeth. Now, [newspapers] say, ‘If it works, great. If it doesn’t, let’s move on.'”

Some newspapers are indeed doing some things that would never have been considered before. The Columbia Missourian, for instance, tossed its food section out of the print edition and onto its eMprint digital newspaper. “Now, admittedly, the biggest reason we did this was because our competitor had captured most of the grocery ads, so we could do that without a huge risk,” says Executive Editor Tom Warhover. “If we did have a lot of grocery ads, would we have the courage to do it? I don’t know.” But earlier this summer, the paper made another bold move, scrapping virtually all its sports agate.

More newspapers should advance the move to digital by putting certain sections on the Web, argues Michael P. Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center: “In the future, the core newspaper will be much smaller, and maybe somewhat self-contained. A lot of the sections as we know them today are going to be on the Internet.” His candidates for print banishment include features, sports, and opinion pages: “They’re sections about interactivity and calculation, and you can do that better on the Web.”

That future newspaper might look a lot like the product the Orange County (Calif.) Register rolled out in August. The OC Post seems like another quick-read tabloid, but here’s the catch: it’s a paid product that’s home-delivered. Publisher N. Christian Anderson III hopes the tab attracts those not currently reading the Register and those who are ready to abandon the broadsheet because they don’t have time for it anymore.

Meanwhile, Anderson is reworking the Register with the goal of making it more appealing to loyal subscribers. But he’s quick to admit, “The truth of it is, we can’t be all things to all people.”

And that’s the future, too: Newspapers will roll out more kinds of print product to meet the demands of an increasingly diverse market. Sure, metro newspapers are already spinning out Spanish-language papers, faux-alternatives, “luxury” magazines, commuter papers, and the like. But compared to newspapers around the world, U.S. dailies ? grown comfortable over decades of operating as monopolies in their markets ? have barely begun to bulk up their portfolios.

Consider Clar?n, the general-market tabloid in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In the past few years, execs there have spun out some 30 separate products, including a sports daily, a standalone cultural magazine, a technology magazine, and eight, count ’em, eight separate publications for kids between the ages of 8 and 12, starting with cartoons and interactive games for the youngest. Right now, Clar?n is concentrating on bringing out publications targeting those over 40.

“They’re investing in creating new sections that deepen the experience of the core product, while at the same time creating new products,” the Media Management Center’s Smith says. “It’s a three-dimensional strategy: Getting readers in the door, increasing the depth of time spent with the products, and third, building loyal readers” who, for example, move from standalone youth sections to the core edition as they age.

Radical changes required

Certainly there is change percolating in newspapers across the country, but is it enough? Ask a publisher what radical changes the paper has implemented, and the answer is often, “We’ve cut stock tables, we now allow wacky-shaped ads” ? measures industry experts say should have been undertaken years ago.

Newspapers face a choice ? because consumers are already exercising choice. Christine Urban of Urban & Associates frames the issue this way: “There is nothing more laughable or sad than [newspaper] promotional tag lines that say ‘We’re indispensable.’ No you’re not.”

Tomorrow is already here, adds INMA’s Wilkinson: “Whatever hard times we are going through, it’s going to get tougher in the next five years. Change is really hard for an industry with so much tradition of sitting on so much gold.”

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