Monday, October 13, 2008

A Creative Solution to Newspapers Woes

First, a comment about what our local television stations are doing on Friday nights. The local news come on at 11pm. Fridays, they do a shorter newscast and then a long sports show with lots of video of high school football.

Perhaps a similar approach to the Monday newspaper could work. This is from Alan Mutter and his blog:

A way to stay alive on weak ad days

With desperate times demanding desperate measures, a growing number of newspapers are considering the most desperate measure of all: Skipping print editions on the days of the week when ad sales are the weakest.

It already has happened in McPherson, KS; Mesa, AZ; Gilroy, CA, and Cambridge, MD, according to Peter Zollman, who has been tracking the trend at Advanced Interactive Media Group (formerly Classified Intelligence).

Still, I was surprised to get a call recently from someone at a large metropolitan newspaper, who asked if I thought canceling the Monday edition would be a good idea.

“Well, it’s an idea,” I responded. “And it may prove to be the best one you come up with. But how about trying something less drastic, more creative and potentially far more profitable?”

“Like what?”

“Like turning the paper into a themed edition aimed at a carefully targeted audience of untapped readers and advertisers,” I responded.

Here’s my alternative to scrapping the Monday paper, eliminating the Tuesday paper, canning the Wednesday paper, dropping the Thursday paper and, well, you get the idea:

In a major market like the city where my friend works, the population is fixated on the ups and downs of the professional and college sports teams that are active throughout the year. Sports are of particular interest for young men who typically are not newspaper readers but could be captured as a valuable and desirable anew udience by the following multimedia platform:

:: A fan website, where visitors would be encouraged to voice their opinions about the teams through a full range of multimedia self-publishing tools. It would include diaries from local players, blogs, fantasy leagues and such viral features as video and music mashups. To build buzz rapidly, the newspaper might partner with the leading sports-talk radio station or top television sportscaster in town.

:: Turning the Monday paper from an ordinary broadsheet into a free-distribution tabloid, featuring not only the newspaper’s best staff-written sports coverage but also the cream of the user-generated content from the website. (A sufficient ration of other news should be carried in the paper to satisfy sports illiterates like me.)

:: A mobile alert service to flash sports scores and headlines to subscribers 24/7, while reminding them to pick up the paper, contribute to the website and patronize the participating advertisers.

The above products would provide a seamless, cross-media solution for marketers trying to reach a liberal-spending but hard-to-reach audience known to consume such products as beer, cars, clothes, computers, electronics, gaming services, insurance, mobile phones, travel, athletic equipment and almost every form of entertainment. Not only would the suite of sports products create a rich marketplace, but also many of the readers and advertisers would be newfound readers and advertisers.

Newspapers have what it takes to make it happen.

They employ large staffs of content-production specialists, possess large printing plants, operate major websites, maintain comprehensive distribution systems and support the largest local sales organization of any media company operating in their respective markets. Further, the print and online media they already produce provide thousands, if not millions, of essentially free impressions each week to market the new sports products.

Although some additional upfront costs would be associated with launching the new sports media, the outlay makes a lot more sense than eliminating publication on certain days of the week, because skipping days won’t reduce the bulk of the formidable, fixed costs involved in running a newspaper company.

Even if scrapping the Monday paper saved a day’s worth of newsprint, ink, fuel and staffing, most papers still have to sustain the physical and personnel infrastructure they already have in place to support seven-day production. Regardless of whether a paper was published six days a week or seven, it would have the same expenses for rent, insurance and leases on its equipment and fleet. It’s also safe to assume that full-time newspaper employees would not willingly forfeit a seventh of their pay.

Even if a newspaper saved enough money to justify not publishing on Monday, how does this radical cost-cutting strategy solve the industry’s over-arching problem: Shrinking sales.

No company can cut its way to prosperity when its revenue base is contracting, as it has been for newspapers since 2006. Instead of asking ad departments to extract seven days worth of revenue from six days of publication, doesn’t it maker more sense to give the ad staff more (and better-targeted) products to sell to a wider range of advertisers?

There’s no reason to stop with just a sports paper on Monday.

The newspapers that have created “Mom” websites need to robustly expand and vigorously market these initiatives as full cross-media solutions for readers and advertisers alike. One day of the week could be turned into a themed edition emphasizing stories – and advertising – associated with family life, education, dining, fitness and other topics of interest to both working and stay-at-home moms.

Other themed days of the week could be built around the key classified categories. And so forth.

The Boston Globe recently announced plans to publish a weekly sports tabloid that will be produced every Thursday and cost 50 cents a copy. This is not as radical as turning the Monday paper into a free sports tab. And maybe the less-radical approach is a better idea.

Let's hope the Boston venture encourages other revenue-starved publishers to think about doing something more creative than going dark on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and, well, you get the idea.

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