Just when we thought things might be stabilizing after more than a decade of difficult financial conditions, our industry is crippled by the coronavirus pandemic and a collapse of local advertising.
It’s not fair. We deserve better, damn it.
Our employees and customers are scared and disrupted. Our workflows and office routines are out the window. We’re exhausted from years of cuts and gut-wrenching change.
In my conversations with our clients, I can sense the fear and even panic in their voices.
“I’ve lost 80% of my advertising this week.”
“I had to lay off two people I just hired. They were just kids getting started.”
“I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to slash my budget without losing my people.”
“I’m losing carriers. People can’t or are afraid to come to work. I don’t know how I will get the paper out.”
Although most are focused on covering the story while trying to avoid worrying about the long term, there is a new level of hopelessness out there. This one-two punch of a scary disease along with financial collapse could be a death sentence for many publishers.
But our communities need us. We need reporters – more reporters than we have – to cover this and keep everyone informed. Our role has never been more important.
Remember that leaders emerge from crisis. A crisis can spawn innovation because we are forced to do things we would otherwise never even attempt. And staffs – even those overworked and demoralized by years of cutbacks and struggles – can pull together in a crisis.
So this isn’t time for cutbacks. And it isn’t time to panic.
It is our time to shine.
If we cut now and fail to deliver just when people need us most, will it be our last cutback? What if this turns out to be the one thing that finally turns our fate around?
So, pull your team together and step into this. Find a new path – your path.
More than ever, this is a time to challenge your behavior. Violate norms. Resist the obvious. Listen to ideas you would never have considered before.
How can we turn this crisis into action that will make us stronger?
Your readership may be higher than it has been for years. Will people who are cooped up with nothing to do get reacquainted with reading newspapers? This could be a great time to try some sampling.
Can you push newsstand sales and actually boost your circulation? Would a subscription or donation drive now help turn the tide? Maybe this is the time donations or support from non-profits will become a reality. Or maybe we should promote gift subscriptions to older people living alone who perhaps can’t afford a paper? Give your neighbor a paper to read! Why not?
It could be our chance to tackle a complete rethinking of print that goes beyond publishing less frequently – solutions that address content, approach and design. Instead of filling the paper with a lot of (too often boring) stuff you have always run, this is a time to zero base everything you publish. What could you start doing that would be more interesting?
How can we upgrade our web sites and make them shine? Our web sites, if we play our cards right, should get more exposure in the next few weeks than ever before. Online readership could explode.
This is also a time to focus on your digital channel, even if you haven’t believed in it until now. Post to it more often. Fix things that aren’t working. Upgrade it. Rethink the way you use it. How can you make it essential reading?
But don’t look to other newspapers for the answers. Look at what Google, Apple, Facebook and some of the smarter retail or other media outlets are doing.
I often tell my clients that if I see all publishers heading in the same direction, I always go in the opposite direction. And that approach has worked for me in helping to find new and better answers. Newspapers are followers. The move together, looking to each other for guidance. Their herd behavior is consistently too late or misinformed. They are just reacting to the latest stimuli and looking for the easy answer. But there aren’t any. While it feels like there is safety in numbers, there is never innovation.
For example, most publishers are dropping their pay walls now as a public service. I’m not sure that’s the right call. At a time when we have essential information that everyone needs and wants, maybe this is the exact time to get them used to paying for it.
Take a deep breath and turn away from the herd.
At least consider putting a finer point on it. Maybe the story that says the testing station is open is in front of the pay wall. But why should everything be? Is your exclusive feature about the star athlete who just died from coronavirus a public service story? I don’t think so. That’s yours. And it cost you money to get it.
And if you must drop the pay wall, at least put up a mandatory registration wall. Then you can identify some of your new readers and follow up.
Don’t let this opportunity go to waste! And don’t just give away your value. We are constantly undervaluing what we do. We hesitate to ask for money and often price ourselves too low.
Now is the time to consider all your alternatives, not follow the herd.
Bill Ostendorf is president and founder of Creative Circle Media Solutions and has led thousands of workshops for the newspaper industry in 23 countries. He has led the redesign of nearly 700 print publications and about 350 media-related web sites. Creative Circle's software arm offers a full suite highly customized software for media companies, including a dynamic web CMS, print production software, a pay wall, native and classified advertising platforms and new app specifically designed to help newspapers during the COVID-19 crisis called "What's Open?" Creative Circle also built and donated www.mediaviruswatch.com about COVID-19 for the media industry.