By Michael Willard
The printed newspaper — as in compressed wood pulp — wheezed its last hurrah a while back, but no one seems to have told the gray ladies who chronicle history by the minute.
They have reacted slowly to a situation that required electrodes, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and frenzied chest pounding to revive the nearly comatose patient.
This is not a revelation for anyone in the business. Very smart people have been trying to figure out how to breathe new energy into the industry for at least two decades.
Few have figured out the puzzle.
They have tried every thing under the sun, except, perhaps, the simplest and obvious ideas that could possibly, as the saying goes, lift all boats with the rising tide.
It is with trepidation I enter into this discussion, though I do have a mongrel pedigree without claiming expert status. I am more than just an interested observer. It’s in my blood.
Most think of me as a PR or ad guy, maybe even a novelist. I give faint allegiance to those professions but prefer to be called simply a writer. That covers the waterfront.
I started work at the Orlando Sentinel’s at age 19, latching on to the old Tampa Times right out of college, and two years later hooked up with a great wire service called United Press International.
I have been a reporter, editor and a publisher of newspapers and magazines in the US and abroad. This dates back to the ancient Linotype, a pneumatic tube to ferry copy, and a city desk with smoke so thick it created a haze.
So, I sally forth.
Newspapers today are dying because they haven’t given readers sufficient reason to cherish precious time with them like they once did in the golden yesteryear.
Relevancy for any product, absent perhaps toilet paper, is fleeting. Any merchandise today — without significant differentiation — can have the half- life of a butterfly.
Products need a differentiating difference to exist through the ages, and they need to constantly re-evaluate what can and does make them different. This takes creativity on steroids.
Notice the various reincarnations of the common shaving blade, the evolution of the computer and the automobile. Those that didn’t adjust became instant antiques, minus the charm of being heirlooms.
For example, the ice box, the paperweight, the plow, the pay telephone and the madras shorts in my bottom drawer have gone the way of the Mauritius Island dodo bird.
Newspapers are next in line for irrelevance. They represent, in fact, a dead industry walking. To be relevant, newspapers must be made necessary.
Ralph Waldo Emerson gave this advice to mankind: “Make yourself necessary to somebody. Do not make life hard to any.”
This is not the case with newspapers. Without half trying, they make the consumption of information difficult in a digital field more crowded than an ant colony at a watermelon picnic.
There are two other descriptors that should be billboarded in flashing neon for the industry to survive: Newspapers must be convenient and cost-effective
They must be an ingredient of daily life, like food and water or at least give the impression of such. Without exaggeration, I can argue 24–7 information is as paramount in a free society as oxygen.
- The first thing the newspaper business in general should realize — and this seems as obvious as rainwater — is that the important word in newspaper is news and not paper.
For heaven’s sakes, stop killing trees.
It’s expensive and in today’s wired world the lumber yard is an unnecessary middleman. The delivery system runs a distant second to the quality of product, its cost and convenience.
- Newspapers believe they give value because of content — and they do. However, if one subscribes to a Top Tier newspaper, such as the New York Times, as well as to a hometown newspaper, the cost can run $300 plus a year.
You can buy the kids shoes and still have money left over for ice cream and lottery tickets for that amount. So, how to stop hemmoraging which is killing local newspapers?
I believe cooperative marketing agreements — shy of collusion — can be forged between newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post and hometown publications.
For example, what if the New York Times said it would provide to you free your hometown newspaper — no matter where it is — if you subscribe to the NYT’s online edition.
In such a scenario The Times would reach a deal with the local publication such that the cost would be minimal but scalable for both publications in building readership and ad revenue.
Finally, we come to convenience.
- Serious study should be done into the best ways to deliver online content. Maneuvering through the Orlando Sentinel (my local paper) takes more hand/eye coordination than playing eight-ball, call pocket at the local pool hall. Keep it simple. Stress maneuverability and readability, along with quality.
There is one final thought that defines the personality of a newspaper.
Newspapers should have an attitude and aggressive points of view. My late friend, Ned Chilton, who published the Charleston, WV Gazette, said a newspaper should have “sustained outrage”.
In most local coverage, I don’t see outrage. I see sustained pablum.