UPDATED 17:10 EDT / FEBRUARY 27 2009

It’s Almost Too Late to Save Print Media

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I’ve been trying to concentrate on a number of assignments today that need attention, but the news cycle keeps pulling me back into pondering the impending death of the print news business. First, there was the announcement that the last issue of The Rocky Mountain News would be today, and then there were several posts which called attention to Hearst Media’s attempt to convert their properties into eInk magazines. Valleywag’s Owen Thomas wrote a slightly vindictive editorial about he hopes Google kills newspapers and the word broke today that Cablevision intends to erect a paywall to save the online publication Newsday.

Commentary on the death of print is a tired topic. I’ve written so many blog posts and shot so many podcasts over it I’ve lost count. It is, however, a topic I have a little bit more experience with than the average blogger and media commentarian; for two years, I served as a consultant for the print business in a firm that specialized in revitalizing the monetization of newspapers (mostly by bringing their classified unit into the 21st century). The firm I was with had a number of high profile media owners, including a couple of the companies in the news day: Scripps and Hearst.

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I Only Have a So Much Sympathy for Old Media

If you haven’t watched the documentary produced by the Rocky Mountain News that chronicles the death of their paper, you should.  It’s touching, and it puts a human face on the almost gleeful tone we natives of New Media have been using to talk about the Old Media’s failure.  I’m not certain what the motivations of my fellow bloggers are, but mine are driven by my personal experiences as well.

Most certainly my heart goes out to the editorial staff of the Rocky Mountain News and the thousands of other journalists across the country who will be experiencing similar pain over the course of the next two years or so, but I have no sympathy for those in charge of the direction of these media properties.

The main thrust of my advice for newspapers in 2006 and 2007 were for them to take the opportunity to completely overhaul their approach to news. I dealt specifically with small to medium market papers and at the time those sorts of papers were in a unique position to weather the coming storm relatively unscathed if the proper moves were made.

The first move would be to revitalize their classifieds business. Classifieds in those markets had not yet been penetrated by the likes of Craigslist, and it was possible to create viable online alternatives under the well known brand of a local paper. This was generally the easy sale to make, and it was the bread and butter of the firm to handle the outsourcing of this task.

As the token “New Media Evangelist” at the company, I was the one who generally suggested that the company undertake video and audio production to augment what the text and photographic content they were already creating. I preached that they should start the transition towards making their website the primary news vehicle, and not the print version.

I provided lots of evidence that this was the prudent vision to adopt: declining circulation, the increasing adoption of online news consumption, anecdotes of my retirement age father dropping his local paper subscription for online news consumption and the disappearing offline ad buyer.

 

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Scripps Took the Blue Pill

Usually, the response to that part of the slide deck was total denial. Newspapers have experienced in some cases hundreds of years of dominance and growth, and any decline I pointed out was only a temporary bump in the road. They had survived the advent of radio and TV, and this Internet fad would pass as well.

In watching the attitude of the Scripps executives in the RMN documentary and many of the farewell editorials, in the face of total devastation, it’s still clear that they hold these same viewpoints.

“It’s certainly nothing you did, you all did everything right,” Rich Boehne, CEO of Scripps told the RMN staff. “But while you were out doing your part, the business model and the economy changed and the Rocky became a victim of that.”

They blame the economy. They blame Craigslist. They blame it on the other town paper.

They never blame themselves. It isn’t as if they weren’t presented viable options. Keep in mind that much of this evidence and opportunity was presented a scant two and three years ago, back when they still had positive cashflow.

 

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Hearst Took the Red Pill, Cut it in Half, and Let It Expire in the Medicine Cabinet

Hearst was a somewhat more responsive client.

They were some of the first to adopt branded online classifieds. They were one of the first to invest in eInk. They expressed interest in moving video to more prominent placement in their organization.

The problem with Hearst is that they moved at a snail’s pace. We’d pitch, and routinely wait two months for a response. Once they finally agreed to a part of the plan, an implementation that should take a week would take a quarter to get approved an integrated.

Bureaucracy. 100 years of entrenched management, board members and editors, department heads and subheads slow the process down to such a crawl the likes of New Media has never been seen.

Like I said, they invested in eInk, something I was made aware of at the time because our organization was working on a project that could potentially work with the product. At the time, though, any mention of the use of eInk in a project or pitch seemed to evoke eye-rolls and comments on the novelty of the idea rather than it’s viability.

Clearly, their attitude has changed now, although likely far too late. Hearst’s Seattle P-I is up for sale, and the San Francisco Chronicle is on the


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