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.


The new ‘soft parade’ revolution

Is the “soft parade” revolution finally starting in the newspaper industry?

Consider the following:

* New York Newsday announces it will create a pay-for-content system for its Web site, charging online readers for “packages” of news and features.

* The Seattle Post-Intelligencer prints its last edition this week. Instead, it will continue to cover Seattle online, in a product that will provide free content based on blogging, reader submissions and links to other sources.

* Staffers of the shuttered Rocky Mountain News gain financial backing and announce they will start an online venture IF they can get 50,000 Denver-area readers to subscribe for $4.99 a month.

Three new business models have emerged in the past month (two rising from the ashes of the failure of the previous one). Three petri dishes brewing in major markets.

We in the industry be watching these sites closely to see just how much they are accepted by their respective communities, as well as if they will deliver enough revenue to keep them afloat. We’ll also see if the executives on these sites give their plans enough time to catch on, as well as how well they market it.

But, if any one of these tests become successful, you can be sure there will be a mad rush to copy that revenue model throughout the country.

It’s sad that these test sites are finally launched as the result of a crisis. But when you think about it, that seems to be when journalists are at their best.

A footnote: NewWest blogger Jonathon Weber offers up his simple revenue model that he says works for him.

From the ashes of one, will another arise?

Great journalism will never die. Great journalists won’t let it.

Case in point: weeks after the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, a group of RMN staffers have gone on their own to keep the spirit of the Rocky alive. They are creating an online news source called InDenverTimes.com (The RMN name is still tied up in corporate limbo). With an introduction video (below) and highlights on the newly-created website, these folks are planning to reprise their coverage of the Denver area through a subscription-based model. A press conference is planned for later today, and I will update with info as it’s released.

Although I have concerns that the subscription plan will not be enough to keep the venture afloat, I admire the tenacity and dedication to Denver they are showing here. Moreover, I really admire their dedication to the craft of great journalism.

There is a lot more of this spirit in newsrooms across America. Wouldn’t it be great if their leaders recognized this and allowed it to flourish?

UPDATE, TUESDAY, MARCH 17: According to a Monday press conference, the RMN staffers starting up the InDenverTimes.com site have some financial backing from three Denver businessmen. One says he was the one of the reasons for the demise of the Rocky — he cancelled his subscription years ago because he was getting the Rocky’s news online.

But, he’s offering the challenge to Denver to try to get 50,000 online subscribers by April 23 — which would have been the 150th anniversary for the Rocky. If they achieve that goal, InDenverTimes.com will go live.

This is an exciting movement. Much has been said about the loyalty Denver readers had to the Rocky. Will they have the same loyalty to its soul in a reincarnated form?

We can only hope so.

More reasons the Rocky’s path was too rocky

A follow-up to Friday’s piece on the Rocky Mountain News. Blog reader Jay made two very interesting points about the RMN’s final edition video:

1. Most of the people talking in the video are over 40 – It is clear that newspapers are only relevant to an older generation.

2. I spend many hours of my life in the daily news meetings that I saw again on this video. What struck me is that only 1 person in that room brought a laptop to the meeting. The rest of the group was still clinging onto paper budgets..that were probably hours out of date. News is now in real time and to survive some honored journalism rituals need to be questioned and changed.

I have personal experience with Jay’s second comment. When I first moved to online, I brought a laptop to all news budget meetings as well, mainly to take notes and check online competitors for instant feedback. I was still fighting the “web scooping print” mindset at the time and the other editors saw the “real-time” news updates as a toy rather than a strategic planning tool. One top level editor even continually chastised me for spending too much time “surfing the web” during these meetings. There seemed to be little concern that a story they would talk about for publication later in the day was already on the Web site of their main competitors.

I hear not much has changed since those days, except they talk more about the web site now and a few more editors have become attuned to the news in “real-time” concept.

And, like Jay, I did notice there were way too few young people lamenting the fact that “My Rocky” won’t be around for them. Again, it’s a visual note that the RMN was not reaching the readers it needed to grab to stay afloat, let alone thrive.

Too many newsrooms still talk the talk, and very few walk the walk. I don’t know if this was the case at RMN, but it seems that way too many newsrooms are still in denial over the fact that readership has shifted away from print.

The flagship newspaper served its purpose during its time, but those days are over. It’s time to modify, retire or replace those flagships.

Remember when you were a kid? There you were, with a bunch of your friends, standing in front of an old abandoned house. The one you thought was haunted? And everyone said they wanted to go in, but nobody wanted to go first? And, after several “I dare yous” and “we’ll be right behind yous” you finally gather enough gumption to go in. So you take a deep breath, walk in and, in a moment of absolute fear, turn around to look at your friends, only to find they’re still outside?

Well, Newsday is taking the “triple-dog dare” of the pay-for-content debate by announcing they plan to begin charging for its news content on the web site. In essence, it’s going to go to its parent company’s cable television roots to develop an on-demand paid news site. With Newsday taking the step forward, we’re finally going to see if people are indeed willing to pay for news content on the web.

Or will we? Newsday’s gamble is grand, but can one newspaper in a highly competitive market pull this off? Will the New York Times and Daily News … as well as the other suburban and community news sites … follow Newsday into the unknown, or will they sit outside and reap the benefits of Newsday readers deciding to get their news from somewhere else?

I give Newsday credit for trying to do something. But the plan still underestimates the loyalty of readers … or, as we may likely see, the lack of loyalty. As long as they can get content from SOMEWHERE for free, they will likely gravitate towards that.

Again, instead of forcing charges on readers, why not give them products (packaging and distribution of your content) that they would be willing to pay for?

* My heart goes out to the editorial employees of the Rocky Mountain News, which ceased publication Friday. Ironically, word of the newspaper’s demise was first broadcast through Twitter before it was picked up by the mainstreet media.

And, again through Twitter, we were able to see the thoughts and emotions of the newsroom as they produced the final edition. I noticed that the story played closely to the plot of the movie “Deadline U.S.A.” — a movie made more than 50 years ago.

Both examples say loads about the dynamic shift in information dissemination. If only newspaper owners would take notice.

“When I left you I was but the learner. Now I AM THE MASTER,” the evil Darth Vader said to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first “Star Wars.”

Could Dean Singleton become the Darth Vader of Denver? With E.W. Scripps’ announcement that the Rocky Mountain News is for sale, it’s a possibility.

Singleton, who is president of the parent company of the Rocky’s rival Denver News, could potentially be a likely suitors for the Rocky. Alan Mutter even suggests that Singleton’s MediaNews Group could be the most likely buyer.

Singleton hasn’t said if he is interested in purchasing the Rocky. But he did say in the Post that he didn’t think Scripps would find a buyer.

Given the current economic climate, I also doubt there will be much interest in the Rocky, despite its long history of being the scrappy tabloid that reflected the attitude of the pioneers that built the city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But, as Sam Zell pointed out recently, investors can’t cash in on Pulitzer prizes.

And, given the Post’s dominance in the market, I doubt anyone outside the industry would be interested in buying a struggling newspaper in a competitive market at a time when those in the market are all struggling for survival.

So, at first blush, MediaNews would seem like the ideal buyer. Considering the two papers have a JOA that combines a number of functions in circulation and advertising, and the papers share space in the same downtown building, there would be little else to consolidate.

So why would MediaNews want two newspapers in the same market? To answer that, we need to look at Dallas in 1991. Dallas was a two-newspaper town, dominated by the Belo Corp.’s Dallas Morning News and an afternoon competitor, the Dallas Times Herald. The Times Herald, like the Rocky, had a reputation of being the scrappy underdog that continually nipped at the heels of the more conservative News. Its stable included columnists like Molly Ivins, Skip Bayless and Joe Bob Briggs. A young reporter named Jim Lehrer covered the Kennedy assassination for the paper. It had 3 Pulitzers on its trophy shelf, including one for the infamous photo of Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald.

In the late 80’s, a young entrepreneur named William Dean Singleton bought the paper from Times Mirror for a song, and after a few years of extensive cutbacks in staff and resources, he sold the paper to Belo in 1991. The next day, Belo shut down the Times Herald, thereby eliminating the News’ major competition in Dallas.

Back to today. Singleton is now in the catbird seat to give the Denver Post sole possession of the market. MediaNews Group could easily develop a package to buy the Rocky and, with a single slash from his corporate lightsabre, Singleton could eliminate the Rocky, absorbing what assets it has left into the Post’s operation.

If this does play out, it’d a win-win situation for Singleton and MediaNews Group. But It’d also be a big loss for Denver and the newspaper industry, as the Rocky would be added to the list of great metropolitan newspapers that have bitten the dust over the past two decades.

I stress that this is only one of many scenarios. A buyer could come through for the Rocky … maybe a noble billionaire as Rocky columnist Mike Littwin hopes. But that scenario … especially in light of the N.Y. Time’s revelation that McClatchy is trying to find a buyer for the Miami Herald … is the least likely out there.

Or, Scripps may not find a deal to its liking and just close up shop on its own, which would still give Singleton a monopoly in Denver without him moving a finger.

But if Singleton does become a player in the Rocky’s sale, the irony would be significant.

Or, in the words of Lord Vader: “The circle is now complete.”

UPDATE DEC. 15, 9:10 p.m.: OK, with MediaNews now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, I now doubt this scenario will play through.

But, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Scripps and MediaNews “merge” the two organizations, eliminating one nameplate or maybe making one online only. The question would only be: Who will be willing to absorb all that debt?