We’ve written about the need for newspapers to stop thinking about they physical product and start acting like “information valets” for their users in an age where attention is at a premium — helping users to manage their “personas.” We’ve co-authored a piece about efforts at the New London, Conn. Day newspaper. Now another voice is now explaining why newspapers must move beyond the news, too.
Stephen Gray sold his family’s southern Michigan daily newspaper to his employees, and embarked on an intellectual journey that has reached an apocryphal conclusion – he now thinks newspapers are doomed if they confine themselves to the news.
Gray’s newspaper career began as a newsboy at his family’s Monroe [Mich.] Evening News (circ. 23,000) extended through the ranks to CEO. In 1995, the family began turning over ownership of the paper to its employees in an innovative Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) buyout completed in 2000. From 1997 to about 2004, he was at the Christian Science Monitor, ultimately as managing publisher.
Gray was managing director from 2005 to 2008 of the American Press Institute’s $2-million, deep-dive research project, “Newspaper Next.” In collaboration with a consultancy headed by then-Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton Christiansen, Gray and others barnstormed the nation, warning publishers about the dicey history of industries subjected to technological innovation and disruption.
The Newspaper Next initiative wrapped up in 2008 with a report: “Making the Leap Beyond ‘Newspaper Companies.’ Here’s a link to the PDF. You can also watch an archived video of Gray’s “Newspaper Next” presentation at the June 29, 2006 Media Giraffe Project conference in Amherst, Mass., or read Oliver Luft’s 2006 account of Gray’s talk at Journalism.co.uk.
After a stint in a publisher-level role at The Christian Science Monitor, Gray wound up at Morris Communications, the Augusta, Ga.-based small newspaper and book publishing company – also owned by a family.
Now, Gray is speaking out again, on a new personal blog – and he’s still warning newspapers that they need to change, and change fast. “I’m not talking about mobile, which others have often cited as the next disruption,” he writes, adding: “I’m talking about the hyper targeting of Web advertising through exchanges and machine-based buying.”
The result, says Gray, is that newspaper websites are now in competition with national players like Google and Facebook for targeting of local advertising to local readers. But here’s the big change, according to Gray: The ads don’t have to be on the newspaper’s own website. They can be anywhere on the web, because tracking technology allows ad networks and big players to follow users as they move above the web.
“We’ve got three big jobs ahead of us,” says Gray. “Become potent sellers of hyper-targeted local audiences wherever they may roam; multiply our own audiences so they can capture bigger shares of targeting’s exploding revenue, and figure out how to drive huge local audiences at much lower cost so we can make money at commodity rates.”
In another post, Grey says that Facebook has almost 20 times as many visits by people in a typical Morris newspaper market as the Morris paper’s website. And he says that is pretty typical of most newspaper markets. “Digital audiences for local mass media websites are dwarfed by those of national digital players that meet more individualized needs and interests,” writes Grey. “Most newspaper companies are ignoring this, at their great peril. “The national/global giants are trouncing us. And they are working harder and harder to sell advertising to local businesses in direct competition with local media.”
Finally in a third post, Grey says newspapers have to stop thinking of communities as places where news happens and needs to be reported. In a third post, he says news organizations have to think of communities as places where people lead their lives and “we help them do it.”
“News has its place in this, but it’s a far bigger assignment than news,” Grey says, adding later: “s local media companies, we need to be all about community — about the place where you live. Fortunately for us, Facebook is not, and nobody else has arrived yet with great local platforms that enable people in communities to connect and share and get the kind of information their lives demand every day. Neither have we, and we must. And fast. We’re losing the audience race in our markets, and every day counts.”