Wednesday, November 14, 2007

BoSacks Speaks Out: On Why?

BoSacks Speaks Out: On Why?
Everybody who reads this newsletter knows that I am very happily, a magazine guy through and through. So, it's not a mystery that I am continually barraged with questions like; "Bo, why do you keep such a strong focus on the newspaper industry?"

I have a dozen reasons why I think it is an important industry to track, not the least of which is my canary in the mine shaft theory. I used to explain this more often to my readership than I do now, and I believe that it has been five years since I have done so. I will now attempt to correct that oversight, because I still deem it an important industry for magazine professionals to track.

Simply put, the newspaper industry has been a forecaster of magazine trends for over 50 years. I believe that the newspaper industry still acts for the magazine industry just like the vulnerable little canaries that coal miners carried into the coal mines in times past. When there was little clean air, the canaries "fainted" first, warning the miners of pending trouble. A similar process could/should be said for newspapers being more sensitive and vulnerable in the publishing world, in these times of economic stress and business model upheaval. It is the newspapers who are "fainting" first, months, perhaps years before the same conditions hit the magazine industry. But make no mistake, it is a very similar mineshaft that we are in. If they are fainting and croaking, we had best know the reasons why?

We all know that many of the old business models have changed. Newspapers and magazines have changed, dramatically. Surely, the advertising community has changed in, if nothing else, the many different and new venues to spend advertising dollars on or in. Not to mention their obsessive search for accountability.

So, yes, I track the newspaper industry pretty closely and only send out a fraction of what I read. But when I send out an article, I do so to inform you of publishing trends and possibilities and new experiments and techniques that may or may not work as we reinvent ourselves and our industry. My bottom line is this, that properly informed we could be on the edge of a new golden age of publishing. All it will take is an open mind and the creativity to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work.
Thomas A. Edison (1847 - 1931)


Ventilating the Chinese Wall

By Alan Mutter

"Asking a newsroom to come up with innovative revenue ideas may be the cruelest of ironies," wrote an editor recently tasked with developing new niche and advertorial products for his newspaper.

Ironic? Yes. Cruel? Not necessarily. In fact, a dose of investigative reporting may be just what the industry needs to pull out of the long-running revenue tailspin that threatens to destroy it.

The problem, of course, is that commercial discussions are strictly verboten in most American newsrooms. For sound reasons that contributed over the years to the credibility of modern newspapers, most journalists hold deeply to the principal that the news should be reported without heeding the interests of the advertisers who underwrite their work.

I embraced and upheld the so-called separation of church and state throughout my career in journalism. And I freely admit that I might well oppose crossing the bright line today, if I had not exited the enchanted realm of journalism two decades ago to make my way in the real world of business.

Now that I am on the outside looking in, however, I believe it is time for deeper collaboration than ever between the newsroom and the counting house. While I do not favor razing the Chinese wall that traditionally has separated the two, we have come to the point that it is time to start poking some serious holes in it. The resulting ventilation will do both sides a lot of good.

This urgent and unorthodox suggestion results from my conclusion that the people on the business side of newspapers, whose job this rightfully should have been, have failed for more than a decade to gain a realistic understanding of how their intended customers perceive their print and online products. By "customers," I mean not only readers but also advertisers - and the largest, fastest growing group of all - non-readers.

Instead of evolving their businessses to address the rapid technological, economic, demographic and social changes that are disrupting the way people consume traditional media like newspapers, publishers for the most part have tried to optimize an ancient and outmoded model in myriad self-defeating ways: forcing through unjustifiable ad-rate increases, monkeying with circulation figures, chopping staff, shrinking newspapers and scrimping on customer service.

My favorite stupid publisher trick occurred at a paper that halted deliveries to long-time subscribers because the newly down-sized circulation department fell behind in despositing the payments arriving in the mail. The faithful customers whose service was suspended, incidentally, were paying full boat, not the money-losing $20-a-year promotional price the paper desperately charges for Wednesday-through-Sunday home delivery.

With the declines in circulation, revenues, profits and stock prices in the last few years proving beyond all doubt that chiseling isn't a growth strategy, it's time to try something completely different: building sales. And that's where the newsroom comes in.

Unlike the executives on the business side who got their jobs by being good, but not particularly inventive, at exploiting the monopoly-like advantages enjoyed by most newspapers until the arrival of the Net, journalists don't have to defend the relevance of their role in an increasingly ineffective business model. As such, journalists are the most objective and least personally conflicted people working in publishing companies.

Further, most journalists possess a peculiar DNA that compels them to kick over rocks to see what crawls out. They, and they alone, appear to be the ones most likely to be motivated and equipped to ask such tough questions as what advertisers really think, what readers really want and, most importantly, what newspapers can do to regain the engagement of the advertisers and readers who have forsaken them.

As journalists become involved in creatively identifying new audiences, new products, new markets and new revenue streams, one alternative that should remain off the table, obviously, is trading cash for news coverage. Putting the news columns up for sale would erode the most valuable commodity a newspaper possesses: Its credibility.

The emergency facing the newspaper industry leaves journalists no choice but to broadly redefine their roles and overcome their near-universal reluctance to getting involved in the business of their business.

If they don't act to defend the economic health of the institutions that make their valuable work possible, the institutions themselves may be irreparably damaged or lost forever. I can think of no higher calling for a journalist.

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