Sunday, May 27, 2012

The demise of newspapers represents a huge opportunity for local news

Maybe you caught this news the other day, maybe not. The daily newspaper in New Orleans, the strangely named New Orleans Times-Picayune, announced it will now only offer print editions three days per week. Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

The reason isn't as obvious as you think. Right away you know the Internet is the main culprit, and you'd be right. Throw in the higher cost of paper and ink. Then you've got gas prices... it costs a lot more to drive those newspaper delivery trucks. When I'm visiting New York it costs more to buy a Big Apple daily in Jersey or Connecticut than it does in Manhattan. Gas prices.

But the reason goes back to the early days of the Internet, and a meeting I attended many years ago. At that time a corporate guy was telling us to "drive viewers to the Internet." I'm sure print people heard the same thing. But all those corporate beancounters made one huge mistake. They made the product on the Internet free, assuming they'd make a ton of money off advertising on the net. And once you start giving something away for free, you can't start charging for it. Advertising on the net never reached the level of print and broadcast. For proof, consider that GM recently pulled its ads from Facebook, saying they weren't effective. For more proof, think about how many times you actually click on internet ads.

Now let's consider my late mom, who loved her daily newspaper. First, she had no interest in using a computer in her eighties, so letting her read the paper that way was out. So we had a print subscription to USA Today, which amazingly made it into our mailbox the same day it was printed.

I used to have a print subscription to the New York papers, but they'd take several days to get here. When they started putting stuff online for free, I cancelled my subscription, and read them online every day to this day. Would I pay for an online subscription? Absolutely. But they've never required one.

So what does all this mean for local news? Well, in the case of New Orleans, it means a whole lot of people will wake up on Monday hungry for information who won't find it on their doorstep. It means a whole lot of seniors and people who cannot afford computers and Internet service will have to look for another way to get their news.

It means they'll turn on the television.

It means that Madison Avenue and Nielsen now have to give more weight to people older than 49, because those people might not have a newspaper to read.

It means you had better beef up your newscast with different kinds of stories than most of you have been covering. Stories that really affect people, rather than scanner garbage. It means you consultants out there had better realize that the most-read section of any paper, the sports section, is gone, and that you'd better start adding to the sports coverage you've been dying to eliminate.

Does it mean longer newscasts? Maybe. Does it mean things like obituaries will now be run on a crawl at some point because locals can't find out till Wednesday that someone died on a Sunday? Possibly. Does it mean continuous news crawls all day long during soap operas? The possibilities are endless.

Newspapers have been in trouble for awhile, and television has one big factor that has kept us afloat. Political advertising. We all know for certain that will never go away. So while TV is not the golden goose it once was, it's in better shape than print. You can expect more papers to follow the lead of New Orleans.

But the bottom line is this: if people can't get their news from print, they'll look elsewhere. Radio news died a long time ago. And the Internet isn't for everyone.

So what's left? The answer is obvious. Local television news.

And if you (I'm lookin' at you, News Directors and consultants) are not seeing this as an opportunity, you're as short-sighted as those people years ago who put everything on the net for free.


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