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December 30, 2007

Small is big: Rethinking the role of local media

John Stoehr

It appears that most local media are floundering, according to this Wall Street Journal article:

Local media companies, because they are based in the communities they serve, would seem to have an edge over Internet sellers when it comes to persuading the diner or corner hardware store to take out an ad. But they have largely failed to convert that advantage into sales. Instead of tailoring their sales to local businesses, many newspaper companies initially focused on selling ads to bigger advertisers who were already buying space in their print products.

Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis, the media guru and founder of Entertainment Weekly, writes in his popular Buzz Machine blog what's been obvious to people like City Paper's advertising Svengalis (where I took a job as the arts editor three months ago), that small is the new big:
Newspapers are losing their own core market because they didn't understand the scale of the internet. They still thought mass when they should have realized that small is the new big. That is, online, newspapers still threw their lot in with the big advertisers who had been the only ones who could afford their mass products. They didn't see the mass of potential spending in a new population of small, local advertisers who never could afford to advertise in newspapers but who now could afford to buy targeted, efficient, inexpensive ads online. There's growth -- yes, growth -- there. But newspapers ignored that -- apart from some half-hearted attempts to come up with crappy online Yellow Pages -- and handed what should be their local market over to Google and other online companies that set up efficient means to sell a lot of little ads, which equals big revenue.

Dave Morgan, writing in the blog Online Spin, takes the "small" concept a step further. Why don't daily newspapers break themselves up structurally? That is, they are already advertising firms, digital media companies and news gathering organizations. Instead of being bundled together, why not separate them and work according to their strengths? Here's how he would define each new spin-off:
Local news and news editing
Newspapers are generally pretty good at local news and news editing. The problem is, they can only leverage that capability in their print newspapers and on their Web sites, and the two together are not likely to be able to pay the bills required to run great newsrooms. OK. Why not spin them out as news companies, continue to have them providing news to the print and Web precuts, but permit them to service any number of other businesses, from newsletters to specialty weeklies to global news services? Let them free to do what they do best and to develop new and diverse customer bases.

Distribution
Newspaper companies are one of only a few companies that pass virtually every home in their markets once a day and have the capacity to deliver physical products. Many newspapers have had success converting their distributors into alternative distribution networks, delivering everything from magazines to marketer samples to other print news products. Let these folks free to find the best ways to pay for the trunks, cars, drivers and gasoline.

Ad sales and direct marketing
Newspaper companies are generally the leading sellers of advertising in their markets. Why sell just for the newspaper? Why not sell for other local media? Why not sell for national media to local advertisers? Why not become local marketing solutions companies, since most local markets have very few ad agencies that have expertise beyond creative and strategy? Let sales sell, and let them fill up their quiver with lots of other media and marketing solutions.

Printing
Printing is very expensive, and getting more so. The commercial printing business is growing fast, and many newspapers run commercial printing as a sidelight, to help defray the capital investments in printing and plant and the expenses to run them. Why not make commercial printing the primary role of the operations and make the newspaper just another client? Let the printers print for everyone.

Digital
Most newspaper companies have local Web sites and digital teams. While they help the newspaper "go online," many of the things they do go well beyond the normal role of the local newspaper, whether it be in Web site design, email newsletters, qualified lead generation, search marketing, and much much more. How about letting the digital folks free to build the best digital businesses possible, and just have them license the news feeds and leverage the sales company, if they so desire.

Cross-posted from Charleston City Paper's Unscripted.

Posted by John Stoehr at December 30, 2007 8:48 AM