Breaking News

June 1, 2009
Business in Calgary

People don't just need news, which can now be delivered on hundreds of different platforms. They need context, meaning and explanation.

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Thirty years ago, buying advertising was easy. You purchased an ad in the local newspaper, maybe one in a magazine and on TV and, shazam!, people showed up at your store or auto dealership and bought your stuff.

You made money, the media made money and people got the information and product information they needed. When it came to finding a car, a place to live or a job, there was really only one place to go, the classified advertising department of your local newspaper.

In those days, people subscribed to newspapers the way they today subscribe to cable. Virtually everybody did it. Enormous, responsive audiences were guaranteed. It was not unusual for newspapers to have a 'read yesterday' rating of 70 per cent or better.

The first big shift came when local TV newscasts became so powerful that hundreds of afternoon newspapers across North America moved to morning delivery or died. But the business was still good, so good, in fact, that everybody wanted a piece of it and, even before the Internet, media began to fragment. For many newspapers which over the course of a century or more had enjoyed virtual monopoly status this meant learning to compete and being more responsive to audiences and advertisers. Community relations departments became marketing departments, for instance, as operators learned they had to actually sell their products and value to the community. Some did it well, some did it poorly. But they all continued to do just fine until the green sprouts of the technology age matured almost overnight into the solid oak of the Internet and the single audience and advertising platform that print once represented was blown apart.

Breaking news, formerly the sole preserve of print, could now be delivered on demand to people's desktops and Black- Berry smartphones. Heck, you can read it on screens in office tower elevators. Newspapers had two options. One was to adapt to their new role as carriers of commentary, context and analysis of news to distinguish themselves online and the other was to continue to do what they had always done in terms of product creation, assuming that they could just transfer it to the online world. Recognizing that what was most at risk was the lucrative gold mine of classified advertising, papers also launched their own online products to make sure they retrieved at least a portion of the lost, help wanted, rentals and auto advertising.

Still, the toll was inescapable. What was once unimaginable is now taking place and, particularly in the U.S., newspapers are dying.

For business people who have relied on print to deliver their product information, this is an enormously confusing dilemma. The once simple task of placing an ad and waiting for the phone to ring or the line to form is now a complex weave of picking and choosing between print, broadcast and online deliveries too numerous to mention.

But should you abandon print as so many are saying? As a former newspaper executive my answer is: no, I don't think so. Diminished as they are, newspapers can still build audiences bigger than most as a single buy. Readership declines have more or less stabilized over the past eight years and while newsrooms are shadows of their former selves, they are still much larger than those elsewhere. Most of all, while new media has proven to be unstoppable in certain advertising categories, it has yet to prove its effectiveness when it comes to selling retail products.

Yes, many newspapers will die. The herd will be culled. The ones that survive will not be those that deliver what is essentially a print version of their online news capacity to people's doorsteps. Quite the opposite: people don't just need news, which can now be delivered on hundreds of different platforms. They need context, meaning and explanation. Newspapers that recognize this evolutionary opportunity and invest in it may never be the bastions of profitability they once were. But under the appropriate structure they can retain and build the audiences they need to survive as solid businesses and serve their communities. It might be the end of the day, but it's way too early to pull the plug on print.