Wednesday, May 11, 2005

What is a newspaper today?

Many years ago I was working with an advertising executive who had agreed to speak to a newspaper publishers’ meeting.

We had a nice conversation in his office, covering lots of issues related to newspapers. He explained to me that he did not regularly read any newspaper, and so he wanted to think about “promise and performance” when it comes to the newspaper.

He said he would think over the weekend and call me the next week. He did.

What he had concluded was that a daily newspaper is – and I am paraphrasing from memory – “the physical representation of the community it serves”.

Think about that.

He explained what he meant. When the entirety of a daily newspaper opens on a kitchen table, a bus, or a desk, it “should” be telling its reader that this is this community and pretty much what’s important about it in the last 24 hours and some sense of what is going to be important in the next day.

It ought to be doing this through its selection of both stories and opinions as well as its advertising.

When someone reads any day’s newspaper, he or she should feel like the newspaper is a thoughtful mirror of the community reflecting all of the diversity and excitement, along with the challenges and problems, of that community.

Newspapers today do not do that very well, and so I don’t think most measure up to this fellow’s definition.

Too often, they are instead a reflection of what the Associated Press decides is important as far as national and international, and often states, news is concerned. There are a few local opinions reflecting hotspots and peccadillos of contributing commentators. The advertising simply shows whatever it was the advertising sales staff was able to induce, helter-skelter, into the newspaper.

So what is a newspaper today?

It is a largely dysfunctional institution which makes a good deal of money in most cases, and rests on historic laurels and habits hoping that a combination of interest and obligation will lead to more than half the homes in the community subscribing to the paper. News reports address traditional subjects, such as government, passing on press release content, often better written, sometimes not.

I have not seen any studies of this, but my guess is that a smaller percentage of people than ever views the newspaper as “my newspaper”. There is a yawning gap between the newspaper and the people who read it, and an even bigger gap opening with those who do not read the paper.

Those who do subscribe often do so, other than out of a sense of obligation, in order to get one or at most two items out of the paper. It might be advertising preprints (advertising inserts), the comics, some of the sports, television listings, and…..maybe, a desire to understand that community better.

Recently, I cancelled one of the local daily newspapers we received. My wife and I decided it was too much like its competitor and that we were flipping through too many pages finding no added value. So we picked one to eliminate.

This was especially discouraging to find that competition was not producing more differences. It made me think about “competition” in the airline business, the kind of competition that makes one airline virtually indistinguishable from another today.

When I called to stop our subscription, the person on the phone took the information and never once asked me why, or expressed regret at losing a 7 day/week subscriber. No follow-up calls and no letter.

I told friends at the newspaper what had happened, and I now have calls from the editor and the circulation director. Did they say how sorry they were to lose us as subscribers? No, they wanted a report from me on why we did it. Well, that’s better than nothing.

To be the physical representation of the community, the newspaper must be an integral part of the many splintered lives of the market. It has been a very long time since I recall having that feeling.

It comes down to a “cannot live without” test. Most newspapers today are failing badly in an effort to satisfy that test. They are connected to readers through just a few thin threads, and when provided with options or upon some analysis, that link breaks and the subscriber is lost.

When was the last time you read your newspaper and felt that it was the “physical representation of the community it serves”?

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