In the 1990 movie “Awakenings,” Robin Williams plays a maverick doctor who used an experimental drug to awaken catatonic victims of a rare disease. It seems that many of the nation’s newspaper executives have gotten access to that drug. Almost everyone is waking up to the threats of the Internet.
We used to bump into what we called the “1 percent rule.” That phrase came from one group CEO who — when we asked for a meeting — said, “Sorry, I don’t have time for a meeting. The Internet is only 1 percent of our business, and I don’t have time for a 1 percent problem.” These days, nearly all newspaper groups, publishers and editors see the Internet as their No. 1 threat.
The July issue of Presstime, the trade magazine of the Newspaper Association of America, is a good example. Its lead story begins:
“Walls—both real and abstract—that separate online and print advertising departments are slowly being torn down, and sales reps, no matter their professional backgrounds, are being trained to sell across product lines and platforms.
“As the trend takes hold, smaller-market newspapers are joining the major metros that pioneered cross-media sales efforts, convinced that convergence is an indispensable strategy. But the challenges of success remain vast.
“Will management be able to convince long-time print sales reps of the value of a multimedia operation? Will traditional sales people overcome their fears and embrace selling new-media offerings? Will the industry heed media buyers’ and ad agencies’ call for newspapers to band together to offer standardized and compelling rich media, thus optimizing opportunities for across-the-board buys?”
For many years there have been early-adopters and advocates of the Internet within the newspaper industry. They were blocked by varying degrees by others who feared “cannibalization” of circulation and “trading” advertising dollars.
But now, in the midst of the Awakening, ALMOST every newspaper executive I know has given up denial as a strategy for dealing with the Internet. Now they are looking for Internet strategies.
I think we need to be tightly focused to build a Path for Success. Follow these suggested guidelines:
1. Products should have a measurable return on investment. If there is ROI, it’s easier to get everyone — ownership, management, newsrooms, advertising and even circulation departments — to buy in. One of the earliest and best examples of demonstrable ROI is the porting of classified ads from print to Web. Classified ads are usually the No. 2 or No. 3 most-visited sections of a newspaper’s Web site. History shows that both buyers and sellers want to see classified ads on the Internet. Newspapers can raise rates for classified distribution over the Internet even when print circulation is down. Porting display ads and special sections also have proven track records of delivering ROI.
2. Products should protect the newspaper’s flank. For example, free online-only classifieds are a good way to compete with the likes of Craigslist. Online ad-order systems can take the labor and newsprint costs out of offering free classifieds. Also, look at offering online vertical solutions so you can offer your customers alternatives to Monster.com, Auto Trader and Realtor.com. Such solutions help maintain your franchise in the critical categories of employment, auto and real estate. They also should make you money!
3. Online products and services should build your future. Even if there isn’t an immediate ROI or defensive purpose, I think newspapers should be offering online products that demonstrate to readers, advertisers and staff members that the newspaper is the trendsetter in the media/advertising fields. There’s a great deal of fear among stock analysts, newspaper employees and owners that newspapers are dinosaurs with a poor future. Newspapers who take a leadership role in offering Internet solutions to their communities can assuage such concerns — and make everyone feel better.
Under the Awakening, everyone in the industry seems motivated to make the changes needed to survive and thrive. They are offering products and services that increase revenues, protect the franchise and offer hope for the future. Lots of smart people are doing lots of smart things, and it bodes well for the future.