|By Newt Barrett||
|August 3, 2009 09:00 AM EDT||
Local newspapers and business-to-business publications face similar challenges as drastic drops in ad revenue drive equally drastic drops in relevant and compelling content. But for newspapers, ad revenue declines are exacerbated because the highly profitable classified advertising sections have almost disappeared as readers flock to the Internet. Moreover, business-to-business magazines that are well positioned still offer uniquely valuable niche content that helps readers succeed. Their readers still count on them. That’s not so true for our local dailies.
I believe that the potential nail in the coffin for local newspapers is the ease with which readers can access national and international content thanks to the Internet. Conversely, I believe that the potential salvation for local newspapers is to become resoundingly local.
Local Newspaper News Monopoly Disappears
In the heyday of local newspapers they enjoyed a virtual advertising monopoly that was reinforced by an effective information monopoly. That is, in a region like ours, the Naples Daily News was the most obvious source for local, state, national, and even international information. They did a great job of aggregating content that enabled readers to get a good snapshot of everything they likely wanted to know once they had finished their ritual reading of the daily newspaper.
Because most Americans were never blessed by a hometown newspaper like the New York Times or the Washington Post, they read the syndicated content from sources like the Associated Press which was bundled into their local daily. Of course, healthy advertising revenues also supported lots and lots of local news coverage, too. In addition, as we publishing veterans would point out, in many ways the advertising was just as important to readers as the articles.
As an example of the declining relevance of a local newspaper, the Business & Commentary section of the July 4 issue of the Naples daily news underscores the declining impact and relevance of the local press.
- there is no longer a stand-alone business section. It is combined with a commentary section.
- the entirety of the business coverage is on a single page.
- the lead story on that single page comes from the Associated Press and relates, perhaps ironically, to the reinvention of the Saturday Evening Post.
- four news briefs from unnamed wire sources populate a hodgepodge column that includes a story about an oil brokerage firm losing millions to trading
- the two local stories on the page are openly credited to contributions by outside sources, one of which is a local PR firm. They don’t even pretend not to be press releases.
The net effect of this dearth of local news is to reduce the relevance of the newspaper to local readers. I did a quick count of the Sunday edition of the paper and found that in the lead section a tiny fraction of the stories dealt with local issues. Everything else consisted of Associated Press articles on national or state topics.
This formula of combining local and syndicated content for business and other feature stories worked when there was plenty of local information provided and when readers had only expensive, if any, access to sources like the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the London Times. Today, any reader with Internet access can read not only those fine newspapers but what are now effectively daily online editions of Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, The Economist, and a host of other fine business publications.
The unfortunate bottom line is that we rely much less on our local dailies for essential news and information both because we have excellent online alternatives and because there is less compelling local substance.
A Modest Prescription for Local Newspaper Survival
I am certainly not alone in suggesting that local newspapers will have to reinvent themselves in order to survive. But, I believe that a really radical reinvention is required.
Local newspapers need to focus like a laser beam on local coverage. It is the one obvious area where they can outperform any national or international competitor. It is also an area of abiding interest among the local community. We all want to know what is going on with local businesses, growth and development, the local and regional economy, government institutions, community organizations, social activities, entertainment, and much more. Therefore, they need to add, rather than reduce, local content. Perhaps, they could even jettison all that expensive syndicated content completely thereby reducing printing costs while increasing relevance.
The other area of opportunity resides in well organized citizen journalism. I don’t believe that this can be done in the tentative way that is typical of so many publications. For example, The Naples Daily News has opened up virtually all of its articles to commentary in an effort to engage readers. But, because they are unable to monitor the commentary closely, we wind up with a wild array of commentary from the thoughtful to the lunatic fringe. This means that even positive articles or reviews about local companies can be poisoned by unsupervised comments.
This doesn’t mean that citizen journalism cannot work. Quite the contrary. We are blessed with an intelligent, affluent, and informed local population who could almost certainly generate world-class citizen content with the active and enthusiastic supervision of trained editors. We are capable of creating local content that would be so relevant and compelling that it would recapture readers—and all those recaptured readers would lure back the advertisers.
In fact, there are early indications that the Naples Daily News may be moving in this direction. If they do, and if they get it right, I’m confident that our own daily and its newspaper brethren across the country can thrive once more. I certainly wish them well on our collective behalf.
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