PR Firms Readied to Spiff Up Online Newspapers’ Image

By: Steve Outing

“Today on NBC’s The Today Show, our guest is Joe Smith, new media director of the Daily News. …”

All you newspaper new media folks might want to brush up on your interview techniques (and get a haircut!), because the Newspaper Association of America wants you to be guests on TV and radio shows and be interview subjects in print media. It’s necessary, because the newspaper industry has an image problem when it comes to its activities online, and the NAA thinks that a good dose of media celebrity by the newspaper industry’s new media stars will improve things.

To be launched formally at NAA’s Connections new media conference in Orlando, Fla., this June, the newspaper trade association will work with a public relations firm to create a sustained campaign around online newspapers, according to NAA vice president of new media Randy Bennett. The idea is to expose the public to the idea that newspapers are doing cutting-edge stuff online, and counter a common perception that newspapers are slow to adapt to the age of digital publishing and are being outrun online by competitors.

“It disturbs me to read an article about Microsoft Sidewalk (or some other cyber venture), and newspapers always seem to be an afterthought,” says Bennett. “We want to turn that around.”

The effort will be done in conjunction with a PR firm. NAA and the firm are currently finalizing the contract, so Bennett isn’t ready to name the company yet.

Rather than a campaign aimed at the public — like NAA’s current $6 million-plus literacy campaign, which features print ads of celebrities espousing the importance of newspaper reading — the online newspaper campaign will focus on getting the message about newspapers’ online innovations to journalists in hopes of seeding articles and broadcast segments about online newspapers. The costs of the campaign will be considerably more modest than the literacy campaign.

Bennett says that what the NAA wants to promote are the innovative things that newspaper Web sites have created and that might be of interest to the general media and the trade press. While he’d love to help get an online newspaper guru on The Today Show, Bennett also hopes to get more online newspaper mentions in trade publications and thus lessen the perception throughout the technology industry that newspapers are having trouble adapting to business on the Internet.

By way of example, Bennett says that what the Grand Forks Herald did with its Web site during last summer’s catastrophic North Dakota floods — continuing to publish even though its building was destroyed — would have made a great press play to promote the best of online newspapering. (The Herald won a Pulitzer Prize this year for continuing to publish its print edition despite such adversity.)

The NAA will become a repository of the best of online newspapering, and Bennett invites Web managers to send in their stories for possible inclusion in the upcoming campaign.

Newspaper classifieds: Simply better?

On a related front, the NAA’s Classifieds Federation also has engaged a public relations firm, Fleishman Hillard (F-H), to develop ways to promote newspaper classifieds as being superior to classified ads found elsewhere on the Internet. F-H has been retained to continue research and give advice to the NAA about how to create a high perception of value for newspaper classifieds in a combination of print and online — with the idea being that newspapers have a strong advantage over online classified “category killers” like Microsoft Carpoint, Auto-by-Tel, Rent.Net, etc.

Kevin McCourt, director of real estate advertising and online classifieds for the NAA, says that early consumer research has shown that classifieds users perceive newspaper ads as more trustworthy and of higher quality. The next step is to confirm that that perception really exists, and figure out how to play to it on newspapers’ behalf. The idea is that this will become a print campaign, primarily, to convince people to use newspaper classifieds online and in print, rather than stray to the increasingly powerful Web-only classifieds players.

McCourt says that two principle advantages have popped up during initial research: 1) Newspapers, having been in the classifieds business for so long, have a high degree of professionalism and quality, reflected in papers’ adherence to keeping housing ads compliant with fair housing laws, for example; and 2) sellers using newspaper classifieds tend to be more qualified. That is, someone who’s paid the Washington Post for an ad to sell a used car is more likely to consider a serious offer than someone who places a free ad on a service like Yahoo!, who might just be testing the market.

Don’t expect the campaign to use the argument that newspaper ads are better because they cost more, says McCourt, but it will promote consumers’ feelings about newspaper ads. Of course, this will be one of newspapers’ biggest challenges in the years ahead — convincing individual consumers that there’s value in paying to place a newspaper classified ad, when other Internet businesses (players like Yahoo! and Classifieds2000) will let them have it for free.

McCourt envisions a campaign that promotes the “higher quality” of ads that come from newspapers, similar to the Wool Association tag that goes inside quality wool garments, or the “Intel Inside” logo for computers. The classified ad section with the newspaper classifieds logo is supposed to be “better.”

Another element of the NAA’s online classifieds strategy is to assist more newspapers get their ads online. McCourt says that of the nearly 1,000 daily newspaper members of NAA, only 325 publish their classifieds online; and of that 325, some do it in an unsophisticated way, doing little more than dumping their liner ads onto a Web page and expecting Web users to browse through the ads.

A Classifieds Federation task force is exploring what kind of tools and leadership NAA can provide to boost those numbers. A series of programs and seminars are expected to be announced in the coming months.

Filling in an NCN hole

The NAA Web site has long had a links page for all the newspaper Web sites of its members, provided as an industry resource rather than a service for the public. The NAA’s Randy Bennett says that a parallel site is being developed that will cater to the general public and guide people to local newspaper sites. It’s simply a way to get more Internet users to newspaper sites, says Bennett, and he doesn’t expect to have a large promotional campaign associated with it.

The public newspapers directory does to some extent fill in a hole left by New Century Network, which created a central jumping-off point for the best content produced by newspaper Web sites in the U.S. Several other organizations provide newspaper Web directories, including Editor & Publisher and Newslink/American Journalism Review.

Contacts: Randy Bennett, bennr@naa.org
Kevin McCourt, mccourt@naa.org

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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