Cold Type

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Archive for July 2009

Print is king, but not by divine right

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Is it just me or whenever the subject of money and online news and information comes up, the phrase “print is king” inevitably bubbles to the surface?

This just recently happened, in fact, in an office e-mail message with a link to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, offering “5 Tips for Building a Successful Hyperlocal Site,” an idea we’ve discussed off and on for months and may finally attempt to execute later this year. The five tips, or “lessons learned,” are from Michelle Ferrier of the Daytona Beach News Journal‘s now defunct MyTopiaCafe.com, and each is worth its proverbial weight in gold. But the fourth one especially caught my eye.

“If you don’t have a sales force that knows how to sell your product, find them or train them — quickly,” Ferrier wrote, and then added:

“Print was still king. The newspaper advertising management didn’t know how to sell this ‘online community thing’ as a part of the media mix without cannibalizing its cash cow. Instead, the site was sold as an add-on to the print buy instead of as a hyperlocal buy to a new market of smaller advertisers. It cost too much money to deploy a sales team for the little bit of money garnered, they reasoned. The development team was never allowed to develop the classified ads and the smaller display advertising market using automated tools instead of human door knocking.”

I can’t help but wonder how many newspapers are struggling with those same issues because we still genuflect at the print altar? Print is still king, even though the number of print subscribers keeps declining while online audience figures are climbing to the point where they’re much greater or even dwarf the print numbers.

And print gets to keep wearing the crown as long as it pulls in 95% of the industry’s revenues, or if you’re really cooking with gas on the digital side, it might be 90%.

Ferrier suggests that it’s a nut we can crack if we can find a way to sell to smaller advertisers with human sales reps knocking on doors rather than relying on customers to find and figure out online systems designed to “help” them design and place ads on our sites.

I think she’s onto something. If online ad rates remain a fraction of print rates for years to come, the industry has no choice but to try to figure out how to sell a large volume of banner ads and the like. Automating that process is an admirable goal and may be necessary at some point to get that volume, but I can’t help but shake my head in disbelief that we think we can use Web widgets to sell ads right out of the gate. That might work for classified ads or business directories, but I personally believe there’s nothing like the power of shoe leather and face-to-face meetings whether it’s in ad sales or news reporting.

Sadly, on both of those fronts we have fewer and fewer resources to hit the pavement these days, so I think we’re increasingly relying on the phone and e-mail to connect with the people in our communities. Ironically, we’re then launching hyperlocal Web sites that cater to smaller communities that we don’t know as well as we think we do. On top of that, we then hope that the social media tools on those sites will allow people in those communities to connect with each other and us, but even that takes time and effort to develop. Time isn’t something we have a lot of these days, especially when companies want to see a quick return on the money they just spent to build those hyperlocal sites and roll out those social media tools.

But shoe leather is something we can put into these ventures. That’s how we built the print model, the king. He didn’t inherit that exalted status from the heavens. We put him on the throne.

Written by coldtype

July 14, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

What kind of temple are we building?

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What kind of temple are we building to what god?

That’s the line that keeps haunting me from a book I recently read, The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin. I’d picked it up, hoping to glean some nuggets of wisdom we could use in the newspaper business and came away wondering what is it we ultimately hope to build? Do we really care enough about the communities we cover to truly listen to them, have conversations with them and embrace them?

I think a lot of newspapers may be in denial on this front. They think their temple is the only game in town if you want quality local news and information. Meanwhile, the ranks of bloggers and Twitterati keep growing in their parish, and some of them are building a growing audience.

Sadly, I think some papers look at those self-made publishers as a threat and admittedly, in some ways, they are, but they’re also a vital part of the community that newspapers need to engage if they’re going to survive. Allowing reader comments at the end of articles isn’t enough, nor is adding tools for readers to upload their own photos and video or even their own blogs, though all of that certainly helps.

I think our biggest challenge is changing our mindset, especially in the newsrooms. It’s either that or we split our digital efforts off into another separate company that can be freed up to have another mindset, and I’m still torn on whether that’s the best way to go. For now, though, I’m sticking to the notion that newsrooms can change and still retain their journalistic integrity.

Change into what is the question, and I think the answer can be found if we try to cultivate our communities and borrow from Atkin’s assertions in his book.

So how do we build our own cult of news readers? Atkin would say we start by:

  • Flattering your customers
  • Being a beacon of difference
  • Declaring your difference
  • Having dialogue with customer (which leads to getting the customers to do some of the talking for you, ie, evangelizing)
  • Being authentic (live what you preach)
  • Build our own iconography – logos, gear, the uniform
  • Learning and practicing the language or terminology
  • Demonizing the Other (continually point out how the competition is clueless, which in our case is not Google or the bloggers in our communities but rather those who don’t believe in a free press that wants to share ideas and find truths).

Atkin stresses something that I’m not sure all newspapers get: It’s the people. We need to listen to them, talk with them and let them help us do a better of job of bringing them the stories they really want to read in our papers and on our Web sites. We also need to get the right members in the community to worship in our temple, which may mean we need to abandon the idea of anonymity on our sites. I know that won’t go over well with some folks who argue that anonymity is crucial to allow honest conversation and whistleblowing but I’m increasingly feeling that argument has simply become tired and has given people the freedom to behave badly online because there are no consequences for being jerks if we don’t know who you are.

Once we get the right people and have true conversations with them, we also need to find ways for them to meet and interact online or in person, but remember to focus on the people and not on making a sale. Atkin would say we then need to “love bomb” them and make them feel appreciated as members of our cult.

We also need to get busy building myths. This doesn’t mean we tell fibs about who we are and what we do but rather we tell authentic stories about how we gather news and tell good stories, expose wrongdoing and help the community grow stronger. We need to keep in touch regularly with people and remind them that we share the same values. We need to reach out online and in person and evangelize, but we have to remember to keep it real but also keep stressing that we’re all in this together. We all belong to this temple because we want meaning in our lives and stand up for things.

I’m sure some journalists might read this and think, what does this have to do with me? It sounds like you want me to get cozy with my sources. If I do that, how can I be objective and unbiased? Those are good points and I think reporters and editors need to be mindful of that. It doesn’t mean, however, that you have to be a jerk. There are times that call for that while digging in the muck. Much of the time, though, I think we in the media could do a better of job if we remembered that our sources, hopefully, want a better community to live in, which is perhaps the real temple we’re all building and we’ve just been afraid to put it in those terms?

Atkin argues that all cults must have a cause and that you have to get members rooting for your idea. Maybe we need to do a better job of selling journalism as a vital part of our communities. We need to get people rooting for us and for our cause but our cause can’t be to sell them more ads and more papers.

Written by coldtype

July 4, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized