2012 Mega Conference opens

By Brian Steffens on February 27, 2012 0 Comments Ideas

About 500 publishers are gathering in San Antonio, Texas, for the second annual joint key executives conference of Inland Press/Local Media Association/Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.

The kickof was a pre-conference Q&A with LMA's Chairman Jon Rust, co-president of Rust Communications. Read the NetNewsCheck interview here

The program opened with comments and observations from four industry CEO's: Doug Franklin, president, Cox Media; Donna Barrett, president and CEO, CNHI; David Black, president and CEO, Black Press; and Rick Boehne, president and CEO, E.W.Scripps.

Takeaways: Print is not dead, it's actually robust in some places ... and "digital is where the growth is." It sounds contradictory but that's not necessarily true. Much of the "declines" in print readership, circulation and thus advertising revenue was self inflicted, not necessarily the result of reader or advertiser dissatisfaction. Newspapers for years, perhaps decades, have voluntarily curtailed circulation/distribution to unprofitable areas. Denver and Omaha did this more than a decade ago, realizing that midwest advertisers had no use for ego-distribution four and five states away. As newspapers learned to better understand their markets, selective and strategic rentrenchments shed underperforming circulation. That's much different that the narrative that print is dead.

Barrett suggested that if there was no print, there'd be people looking at the media landscape who would jump into print in a flash.

Are we both in denial? I don't think so. There are opportunities where print is attactive and successful. We also know there are opportunities and successes to be had in digital. It's not an either-or proposition. Black sees digital as a niche play: "print is miles ahead of other media, other media that is fracturing" much more precipitously than print.

Boehne, who oversees print, television and cable operations brought the conversation back to content and quality. Cable didn't take off until they figured out they needed to provide something different and unique to retransmitting existing broadcast content. Cable took off when ESPN, HBO, A&E, AMC, USA, TNT, Showtime and others begain producing cable-only content at a level of quality that could attract and retain an audience. Boehne believes the news industry is still at the beginning of that cycle. The implication is that we need to provide quality content that fits each platform, not repurpose content from one platform to another.

I point to the Gannett research from a couple of years ago: it found that young people were reading newspapers more than ever -- campus/student newspapers. Those campus papers are obviously tackling stories, issues and information that is useful or relevant to young readers. The implication is that traditional newspapers miss that boat. It's easy to target the older readers who shop at the paper's advertisers, but that serves the present while bankrupting the future. I can't count the number of industry conferences I've attended in the last 20 years that lamented the lack of progress in addressing readers' needs and wants, broadening the he said/she said style of reporting, the emphasis of conflict framing, the over reliance on official sources. It doesn't seem we've solved those challenges. Those are not technological challenges.

Black suggested something I've come to beieve the past few years: "the change in retail has disrupted our industry." Journalism may not be quite as broken as we make it out to be ... but advertising has certainly experienced disruption. The options now available to retailers is amazing, and much more fractured than a couple of new platforms on which to deliver news. Sure, we've got work to do, but the heavy lifting may lie on the other side of the building. Are we providing as much energy, investment and resources to reinvent the marketing side of the business as we have spent on reinventing news? Are we retraining and restructuring the marketing side of the house with the same fervor as we've retrained and restructured newsrooms? Some companies have, but there is so much more to do. 

Barrett mentioned that it's become difficult to tell our story, our business has become so complicated that it's tough to adequately tell our story to readers or advertisers. And she's right. And if it's hard for us to tell our story, imagine how hard it is for our readers/viewers or advertisers. Our job should be to make it easier for all concerned. After all, that's what the digital-born entrepeneurs do. They focus relentlessly on reducing friction for the end user, to put the bulk of their energy on designing an ease of use interface, on creating the best user experience. Can we honestly say that give readers the best user experience available? Or that we give our retailers/advertisers the best marketing experience that's available to them. If you can say that, then your business is likely to be in decent shape. Then there's the rest of us.

Keith Wilson, vice president and publisher of the Kingsport (TN) Times-News, in a session later in the afternoon, said that anyone can do better, cheaper web design and mobile production. "Other folks are finding less expensive ways to aggregate and deliver our audience … forcing our rates down and the need for us to double our unit sales," he said. He suggests we focus on the creative endeavor. While many can develop and deliver the technology, local newspapers are uniquely in position to provide the creative direction for retail marketing. Develop and create the message, the creative spark, the creative content ... that's the value you can monetize that the technology companies can't do. Invest in the people that can create the messages, partner and-or outsource the technology. It's the agency approach. Gareth Charter, publisher of Holden Landmark in Worcester, MA has followed that path. After just two months with an agency model he's already exploring how to expand to meet the opportunities. 

There's no one silver bullet for our industry. It should be a no-brainer to focus on providing great user experiences for readers and advertisers. It also makes sense to focus on our core competencies: creating quality content and creative marketing. And then maximize the different platforms and their unique opportunities. Easier said than done.

Agree? Disagree? Have a better idea? Share it here. There's room for much more discussion and innovation.

Brian Steffens is the director of communications at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Read his other blog posts here, and talk back at steffensb@rjionline.org and @BrianSteffens on Twitter.


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