Will newspapers ever figure it out?

This week’s release of the ABC’s FAS-FAX circulation figures shows newspapers continue to be in a crisis despite “new” initiatives to attract new readers. Aggregate circulation fell by 7 percent this spring, compared to 5 percent during the same period last year.

The numbers say two things:

1. New initiatives introduced last year are not working. That isn’t a surprise, because most of the initiatives aren’t “new,” but retreads on old ideas. For example, the Tribune Company launched major redesigns of the Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel in an attempt to be more “web” like. The results, according to FAS-FAX, has been a 7.5 percent loss in readers for the Tribune and a whopping 9.4 percent loss in circulation for the Sentinel. With a redesign, you expect to alienate older readers with change, and some will drop their subscriptions. But what we’re seeing is that the new look is not attracting new readers to offset that loss. You can put lipstick on a pig, but…

2. Newspapers still haven’t figured out what their readers want. In Denver, the Post had expected to pick up readers of the Rocky Mountain News when that paper folded a couple of months back. The FAS-FAX figures show that at least 75,000 former RMN readers are not picking up the Post. In the 90s, publishers assumed young readers would begin reading newspapers when they settle down. In the early part of the new millennium, publishers assumed people would still be loyal to newspapers even through the Internet was making inroads as a provider of information and communications. We all remember what our parents said if we assume anything…

The results continue to show a lack of foresight by the industry. In my post last year about the Media 2.0 organization, I couldn’t stress enough the need for a research and development department. A team that is analyzing readers’ wants and needs, developing changes and new products to meet them, and keeping an eye on the changing technology and how they can use it to a build and maintain revenues and readership. I have yet to see a major newspaper make that kind of commitment.

In the meantime, however, maybe the publishers should look at the few papers out there that actually saw an increase in circulation. If they are not willing to invest in their own future, maybe they can find out and copy what’s working for these few. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it might be enough to stabilize a company to actually start thinking about the future.


Flotsam for today

* Update on my “soft parade” item last month: In Seattle, readership of the new web-only seattlepi.com dropped by more than 30% in March, in essence dropping the website from the coveted Top 30 listing by Editor and Publisher. While some are reading it as an indicator that print readership drives online, it should also be noted that seattlepi underwent a significant transition in its content, focusing more on community journalism and bloggers to provide the news. While it’s still way too early to make judgements, the drop may be more on the readers’ reaction to that change than any print/online link.

UPDATE, 1:46 P.M. THURSDAY, APRIL 23: A rocky start for the new venture by former Rocky Mountain News staffers as well. InDenverTimes, created to keep “The Rocky spirit in Denver” has parted company with the investors who had planned to support the site with the help of 50,000 paid subscribers. While no subscriber figures have been announced yet, it sounds as if the group would not make that goal by the May 4 deadline they had set.

* A brutal week in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune today announced it is laying off 50 newsroom members in an effort to ‘rightsize’ the company and get it out of bankruptcy. This comes a day after the crosstown rival Sun-Times announced it was eliminating 140 non-union positions throughout the company’s city and suburban properties. You have to wonder at what point do staff cuts surpass “fat trimming” and become a limbo contest of “how low can you go?”

The Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner has a partial list of those let go. A number are friends who used to work at my company. But a lot of talent and experience has been bled in this last reduction. It will be interesting to see how the scope of Tribune coverage — especially in high school sports, a staple in the Chicago area and one dominated by the suburban papers — is affected.

* My Palm IIIc, which has served me faithfully as my life organizer for the past 9 years, breathed its last gasp of battery power last week and died a peaceful death. While researching a replacement, a friend forwarded me this Luddite-studded (though I wonder if using a Palm IIIc in 2009 could qualify me as a Luddite) pitch on 10 reasons why paper is still the best productivity platform. Michael Scott would be proud.

And can someone tell me where I can buy a Hipster PDA

Twitter and news: The start of a beautiful relationship

Is Twitter part of your media strategy? If you’re a news organization, it better be. You’re already missing the boat if you haven’t even started thinking about it.

Twitter — the ‘microblogging’ service that has exploded in popularity over the past year — has not only become one of the most popular forms of social communication, it has also developed into an incredible news delivery service. We’re seeing more and more breaking news stories finding it’s first mention on Twitter. From the terrorist attacks in Mumbai to the plane that made an emergency landing in the Hudson River, Twitter has played a role in first alerts.

But Twitter can more than a breaking news outlet. The very heart of Twitter lies on the development of “micro communities” that interact and communicate with each other. For a newspaper or news organization, these communities are readers and potential readers that can be attracted to you through this platform. These audiences can be brought to view and, in essence, become new readers to your products.

The key is to use Twitter for what it was meant to do — create a continuing dialog with your communities.

The beauty of Twitter is that its operation is very low-maintenance. Set up is simple. There are a number of off-the-shelf apps that can suit your purposes well. I prefer using Tweetdeck, a free third-party app that does the best job in organizing and categorizing your incoming tweets. Plus, the newest update allows you to send your tweets to your Facebook page as well. (Facebook is another social networking site you should be on as well. But we’ll get to that later.)

You can have one person utilize your Twitter feed, or you can have your entire newsroom involved. Again, training is simple.

Many newspapers have already set up an RSS feed designed to send headlines out to their followers. This is fine, because part of strategy in Twitter is to tout what you have to offer. But a big drawback to RSS is that is a one-way street on a system designed to be 2-way.

The essence of Twitter is conversation. You bring thoughts, ideas and suggestions to the table. Your followers add their comments and bring their thoughts. It’s like a continuing water cooler discussion. People who will follow one another in these micro communities trust the information being passed along, and will trust recommendations and suggestions that are brought into the conversation as well. Your value to the Twitter world is dependent on what you provide in the discussion.

An RSS feed is a terrible discussion partner. To really develop Twitter into a valuable asset, you need a personal touch that not only can get your followers’ attention, but interact with them as well.

To make your Twitter service really shine, it must:

1. Have personality: RSS feeds can’t make a follower laugh, scratch his head, or attract him into discussion. That’s why it’s important to have someone manually sending out tweets and create a Twitter ‘persona,’ such as the Chicago Tribune’s Coloneltribune or the suburban Chicago Daily Herald’s DHInsider. Nuance, tone and humor mean a lot in Twitterland. For example, here’s a story that was recently tweeted out by the Daily Herald:

RSS Feed: “Are there cougars in DuPage County?”
DHInsider:”Officials say cougars are in DuPage Co. The large nocturnal cats, that is, not the … well, you know”

Both tweets contained a link to the story. But The DHInsider item was retweeted (Twitterspeak for forwarding a message) several times by its followers. That means your followers are sending this to their followers, who may send it to their followers. And that third-plus level of followers who were unaware of you may find it worth their while to follow you directly. That, in essence, is building your audience.

2. Remember the conversation. Once you’ve established a Twitter persona, follow the people who follow you. That gives them the idea you’re interested in them (which, of course, you are). It widens the forum for you. As your audience widens, you can bring them into discussion forums that you can use for your news operation. For example, Twitter polls are easy. So are gauging reader opinion. Utilizing hashtags to create discussion topics can give you content that can be culled for stories or future products.

If a follower replies or direct messages you, be sure to respond. You don’t have to keep the conversation going, but be sure to make them know you value their opinion and following.

3. Go beyond headlines. The only thing RSS feeds are good for is sending out headlines and story links. But your site offers far more than that. If you have a great blogger, multimedia feature, video, etc., link to it from your Twitter persona. Don’t be afraid to occasionally retweet it. The lifetime for an average tweet is about 5 minutes, and you never know when your followers are watching you. So banging your drums a few times a day doesn’t hurt … but don’t overdo it. The last thing you want is for your followers to think you’re spamming them.

Your Twitter persona is also a great avenue to build up credibility among followers, especially during times of breaking news. You have the resources to verify information, so as the Twittersphere explodes with information on a breaking news event, use your persona to provide details and clarify misinformation. Here’s an excellent example from the Austin American-Statesman. The more credibility you can build, the more your followers will trust you.

4. Be consistent. Not everyone following you is on a 9-5 schedule. So be certain your Twitter persona is operating throughout the day and night. That’ll probably mean more than one person manning the feed. But the news business is 24/7, and if your Twitter persona is a newshound, your followers will expect it to be on duty all the time.

5. It’s not all about you: Don’t be shy to retweet, even if it’s from a competitor. Did a follower send out information that would be interesting to your community? Let them know. In today’s world, readers do not care as much about the source of the information as about the information itself. If you can become reliable enough to provide your readers with what they want, they’ll tend to stick with you. That means being sure to follow your local information sources. Most professional sports teams, for example, have Twitter feeds. Many business and commerce organizations are setting up on Twitter. Governments are catching on, too. If a team’s star player suffers an injury and the team’s announces it on Twitter, it’s faster to retweet that than wait for your reporter to dig up that info. Faster, cheaper, and still serving your followers.

Bottom line: The more you engage your followers, the more they’ll stick with you. The more information from you that is retweeted by others, the larger your sphere of followers will become. Be relevant, personable, and have a bit of fun. Your readership will grow faster than you can imagine. That that becomes a potential gold mine for readership in other products you offer, including your Web site and newspaper.

Too many news organizations and newspapers are so focused on building revenue that they seemed to have lost track of rebuilding readership and cultivating new readers. Twitter won’t build immediate revenues, but it is a low-cost, low-maintenance way of creating audiences that can be attracted to your existing and new products.

You can’t make money if you don’t have an audience, right?

Writing to young readers: Are Boomers too retro?

Ralph Keyes brings up an interesting point: Are younger readers not picking up newspapers because we’re being too ‘retro’ in our writing?

When journalists refer to people as being too ‘Eddie Haskell,’ for example, do those folks born well after the 1950s know, first of all, who Eddie Haskell is and, secondly, why someone would compare Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to him?

While those of us in the Boomer generation would fully understand the analogy, I can appreciate why the Gen Ys and millennials would scratch their heads and go ‘huh?’

Just how sensitive is it? A few years back, I was training a young and talented assistant editor to become a department manager. Part of that training included giving her the lead in a major project that involved a number of content editors. For the first week, I continually received phone calls and e-mails about the project from the content editors.

After days of forwarding the questions to the assistant, I finally shot out an e-mail to the content editors reminding them that she was in charge of the project and that I should be looked at as ‘the Sgt. Schultz of this project.”

About a half-hour later, the assistant sheepishly asked me “Who is Sgt. Schultz?”

I laughed — I probably shouldn’t have — and explained he was the affable and bumbling Nazi guard of “Hogan’s Heroes” whose famous line was “I know nothing, NOTH-THING!!!!”

But later it made me aware that such analogies worked for me and my peers, but not for this young assistant and the staff she was managing.

Like a manager and his staff, writers need to also understand the factors that have influenced their readers. In many cases, the two may not be in sync.

This is the very reason the staff at Beloit College puts together a yearly “mindset” list….what the incoming freshman class may or may not know. It gives the staff … and those of us who read it … the perspective of the 18-year-old student as he sees the world. Check out the current version. Eddie Haskell isn’t on it. Neither is Sgt. Schultz.

As a writer, you must know the audience you’re writing to. And you must write to them in terms they’ll understand.

Being too retro for younger readers may not be the main reason they don’t pick up newspapers. But if may be a factor as to why they don’t understand what you’re writing about. Maybe we Boomers should consider locking Eddie Haskell and Sgt. Schultz in that time vault, and find newer analogies to state our case.

It may not be too bad every now and then to say the cost of President Obama’s stimulus package is bigger than Kanye West’s ego.

Who says journalism is dying?

The conundrum for today:

More than 8,000 journalists have lost their jobs this year.

15,000 lost jobs last year.

Since 1990, 1 in 4 journalism jobs in the country have been eliminated.

Two major newspapers have closed this year, and more may close by year’s end.

Forbes magazine listed journalism as one of the 10 worst professions in the new millennium.

So why are journalism schools seeing an increase in enrollments?

Could it be because these students still believe in the value of news? Could it be because they feel it is a profession where they can (individually or as a team) make a difference in someone’s life? Could it be because they have a passion for the craft of great storytelling?

Whatever the reason, it shows that there is still hope for the profession, and that hope may eventually save the industry.

They blew it, but the fight’s not over

Media guru Jeff Jarvis, in his Buzzmachine blog, published the speech he would’ve given to the annual NAA conference in San Diego this week. In his speech, he would’ve told the nation’s newspaper publishers “You blew it.”

Jarvis chastises the publishers for neglecting the changing tide of readership, for not embracing technology fast enough, for letting Google, Craigslist and other aggregators to get the better of them, and for letting Associated Press continue to ruin their chances for survival. (In a later post, he calls for the elimination of AP to give newspapers rightful control over its local content).

As a result, Jarvis says, publishers are angry. But the readers should be angry at them for “the poor stewardship you have exercised over the press and its service to society.”

Strong words, and much of it rings true. But one thing Jarvis didn’t offer was a way out. In essence, his speech is saying “stick a fork in it … it’s done.” It makes me wonder if Jarvis needs to walk away and calm down a bit. Tim McGuire of the Cronkite School of Journalism has the same feelings.

The majority of publishers attending NAA realize they blew it (though some may still be in denial). And many are trying to figure out ways to bring back readership and revenue. Yes, charging for content is a bad idea now … but give them credit for at least trying to come up with something.

And, yes, the industry needs new innovators and idea men in positions of power. People who are willing to take chances. Sam Zell and his crew may not be the consummate news moguls, but at least the Tribune Co. is trying new and different approaches to content and delivery that many others are afraid to touch.

The newspaper industry is ailing, but by no means done. As long as news readership remains strong … which it does … providing relevant, quality content will remain a viable business.

The trick is to find a way to profit. And America has always found a way to do that.

* Building newspaper readership? Maybe the NAA should take a closer look at India, where newspapers are thriving right now.

It’s interesting that in India, where illiteracy is a problem, the goal is “to aspire to read a newspaper.” As I said before, the Newspaper in Education program missed its mark by being merely a circulation tool instead of a grassroots education program to teach school children to become newspaper readers.

Illiteracy may not be as big a problem here as in India, but newspaper illiteracy sure is. If newspapers can survive this generation, there’s still time to build on the next.

Death watch, continued…

Looks like we can add Boston to the growing list of major cities in danger of becoming one-newspaper towns. It was disclosed that the New York Times Co., which owns the Boston Globe, has threatened to close the paper unless its unions make major concessions.

Granted, times are tough in the industry and management and unions needs to find common ground in order to survive. But it would be an absolute waste of a great institution to see the Globe … the No. 1 paper in the market, no less … shuttered over a union/management issue.