There’s been a lot of talk recently about the imminent death of the traditional newspaper. And with good reason. Over the last year or so several papers, both minor and major, have gone belly up. There are many reasons for this trend: More people are turning to the internet to get their news. The internet has opened the door for other outlets such as TV networks and online service providers like Google and Yahoo! to provide news. And more and more people are turning to blogs, social networks, discovery engines and other non-traditional sources to filter and supply the news they want when they want it.
Considering the way and pace at which the world is progressing, from cell phones with internet access to the plugged-in reality of both office and home life it’s no wonder then the trusted pile of thin paper that shows up on doorsteps throughout the world is starting to lose its foothold.
But does this mean the time of the traditional newspaper is over? Not by a long shot. It does however mean it is time the newspaper business starts looking at the way they do business and change their perception of themselves as a publishing house to a news provider.
Over the last couple of months I’ve pondered this seemingly impossible situation and tried to come up with an answer to this question: Why is it that North American newspapers are falling like flies while their European counterparts are alive and well? The answers I’ve come up with give some insight into the paradigm shift that is taking place in the news world as we speak and provide a new path for those newsmen brave enough to follow it.
Full Disclosure: The following is my personal interpretation of the world and is backed by zero statistical, sociological or otherwise scientific study. The list has been developed through the use of common sense and observation of amongst other three highly successful newspapers in Norway, each of which flaunt well over one million daily readers in a country with a population of only 4.6 million.
1. Put it all online
Regardless of how much you like to think people still read real newspapers, the reality is (in the western world at least) people get their news on the internet. There are many reasons for this, most importantly convenience, searchability and the fact that unlike a physical paper that is published once or in some rare cases twice a day, an online newspaper can be updated by the minute and provide breaking news when it happens.
When I came to Canada in 2002 I was dumbfounded by the fact that many newspapers only published part of their paper online and expected their readers to pay money for the rest. This type of archaic thinking is as counterproductive as it is destructive, most of all because it ignores the fact that people expect information on the internet to be free. And the second you ask for money, they’ll turn away.
And there’s another benefit to putting your content online: You are likely to reach a vast audience that would never spend the money to buy your paper. I myself am the perfect example: Since I came to Canada I have never once bought a single newspaper yet I read articles from at least three different ones on a daily basis. Online. Why does this matter? After all I’m not paying for anything so why should you be providing me with the information for free? Well, if you have a sound online advertising and monitization strategy, you will earn money even from a cheap bastard like myself every time I open one of your stories.
2. The internet is a visual medium. So use it.
When printing a physical newspaper you are faced with huge challenges, especially where cost is concerned. Colour photos are more expensive than black and white. And adding an extra sheet of 4 pages to accommodate for a lengthy article or a few extra photos can push you way over budget. As a result newspapers have become masters at aggressive editing, image selection and page property management. None of which matters when you go online:
One of the many great things about the internet is that real-estate is no longer a problem. Want to post a 6,000 word article on penguins with frostbite? Go ahead. Have a humongous graphic or image you want to show in all it’s splendor and detail? Just place it as a thumbnail in your page and link to the full size version.In short, when moving from print to online as your publishing medium your options in terms of visual content become limitless. So exploit it.
Over the years the three major Norwegian newspapers Aftenposten, Dagbladet and VG have all experimented with different types of layouts and text vs. image placement. Over the last year or so they have all landed on pretty much the same model which works exceptionally well for all of them. I call it Massive Image Overload: On the front page every story, no matter how small, is accompanied by a big photo and only the title and the short two-line excerpt is featured. This strategy creates a visually compelling and easy to understand front page with huge click-through rates. Combined with properly interspersed ads and other effects and you have a money making machine.
But the Massive Image Overload strategy goes beyond that. Once you get to the actual story it is always accompanied by a huge main photo or video on the top of the page. This was actually done as a result of big reader surveys and it is both attractive and effective. Articles with multiple photos are often also accompanied by Flash image galleries, photo documentaries with adjoining audio or in some cases entire sub-pages with more images. This makes the stories far more enjoyable to look at and easier to digest and also increases the over-the-shoulder factor.
3. Offer the readers a place to connect
Social media has been the it-word for a long time now and shows no signs of slowing down. The problem is most people don’t understand what social media is nor how it works. It really isn’t that hard to grasp: Social media is a very loose definition that encompasses pretty much anything and everything that allows users to interact and share with each other.
For a newspaper social media can be both a blessing and a curse. Used wisely it can also become a massive source of income and interest: Your readers have oppinions. So why not give them a place to voice those oppinions? Or even better, showcase them for everyone to see! Several years ago VG introduced a novel idea called “The Readers’ VG” or “VG Blogs“. The principle was simple: Let the readers build their own blogs under the umbrella of the newspaper and feature the best and brightest right on the front page of the online paper. That way you get increased page activity through interaction (which means an increase in advertising revenue) and free content to share with your readers. It’s a win-win situation.
Of course becoming a new blogging platform when companies like WordPress is doing such a good job at it is not an easy task, but the added bonus of potentially being published on the front page will be enough to turn both new and existing bloggers to your service. As long as it’s free of course.
Reader interaction can also be encouraged through the enabling of commenting on news stories, but this has to be heavily controlled and monitored to avoid total disaster. A smart way around this problem that I came across is to offer bloggers the ability to submit their links to be placed at the bottom of the article. That way you avoid the total nutcases and outright flamers and at the same time get valued input and user interaction through direct linkage. Because who wouldn’t want their own blog featured prominently at the bottom of an article by a hugely popular journalist?
4. Bring added value both online and on paper
“All of this is well and good” you say, “but how do I keep readership of my actual paper up? By putting everything online won’t I just lose all my subscribers?” Not if you offer added value in both formats:
For all the value and instantaneousness of the internet, there are certain things better read while sitting in the sofa, at the breakfast table or on the SkyTrain. And likewise there are certain things that are only worth reading as they happen. So rather than trying to cram all the online content into the morning paper or restricting the content of the online version to match the physical one, start specializing. Publish online-only and paper-only articles. As I said before, your online readership is not the same as your paper readership anyway so start pandering to the people you are targeting. That way you can even do cross-promotion: “To read more on this topic pick up tomorrow’s paper”. “This article only available in the online version”. Dagbladet has perfected this technique to such a degree they are now able to sell PDF versions of the paper for people who insist on reading it online but want that added content. It sounds crazy but it works.
If you pick up any of the papers I’ve mentioned here and match them to the online versions you’ll see a huge difference in both weighting of stories as well as what is featured. Whereas the online version focuses heavily on breaking news, sports and entertainment, the paper versions put greater emphasis on opinion pieces, feature articles and interviews and generally heavier and more time consuming material.
5. Go beyond the basic daily to include a weekend feature magazine
When I was a kid, Aftenposten used to publish a monthly magazine called A-magasinet. This publication looked and felt like Time magazine and contained the same type of content: Feature articles and interviews, in-depth exposes, profiles, fact pieces etc.
A-magasinet was killed off while I was in seccondary school but resurrected a few years ago due to renewed interest in stories that went beyond the superficial. The new weekly version is smaller and thicker than a regular newspaper (it is published in the European tabloid size if that means anything to you) and is presented with large photos and a more magazine-like layout. The tone of A-magasinet is light but serious and the magazine reads more like a book.
The articles featured in A-magasinet are only available by buying the magazine and you can get it either by subscribing to the paper or by buying or subscribing to only the Friday edition in which it is included. And interestingly a lot of people choose this latter option.
6. Think way outside the box
One of the most surprising revenue streams I was able to find for a newspaper was a service offered by VG called “The Weight Club”. As the title suggests it is a club you can join to get help loosing weight. By paying a small fee you get access to a closed site within the online newspaper that offers everything from calorie calculators to personal trainer advice, equipment and gym membership discounts, live chats with professional trainers, doctors and other health care providers and a massive support system consisting of other people in your situation.
The service also features success stories in the regular online and printed paper and publishes weekly articles and teasers for non-members to get them hooked.
The Weight Club has turned into a big success both for the paper and for the participants as a huge community has been built that shares recipes, advice, trials and tribulations with each other to achieve a healthier lifestyle and a better life in general.
7. Hook up with the experts
One of the things that really frustrates me when I read papers is that they tend to employ so-called “tech experts” that in reality know less about technology than my guinea pig. And why should they? They’re often just journalists that have been given an assignment that they don’t particularly like or know anything about. This same statement true for most other specialities as well – the paper experts are not really experts. But why reinvent the wheel and make it square to begin with? The internet is full of great sites with knowledgeable people that not only are real experts but know how to communicate with your audience. So rather than labeling one of your journalists as a tech expert or personal healt expert or whatever else you think your readers are looking for, strike a deal with an existing web site that already features this kind of content, put them under your wing and cross post with them. It’s a win-win situation for both parties as the expert site gets visitors from your paper and you get valued advice and content from theirs. And as a bonus all those emails from pesky nerds slagging your expert for sending out Tweets about looking forward to “e-chatting” with them will be long gone.
8. Start a poetry contest
By far the most bizarre and successful phenomenon to hit Norwegian newspapers in the last 5 years must be Dagbladet‘s Monthly Poet. I don’t think even the creators realized just how big a poetry contest where the only prize was a feature article at the end of the month would take off quite as much as it has. Today not only do people submit tons of excellent poetry but the contest has breathed life into poetry as an art form in schools.
Of course poetry is just one of several creative avenues one can pursue but it shows that if you give people a platform to present their art, great things can happen to benefit everyone.
9. Let everyone be a critic
Everyone’s a critic, especially when it comes to movies and music. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself frustrated with a review that went completely against my own perception. And there are thousands like me who are just itching to let the world know their own opinion of the latest blockbuster or chart topper. In other words tons of untapped potential.
Rather than just putting out reviews and letting people vent about them to their friends, how about offering the readers the ability to write their own review? Several online papers now feature a button under every review saying things like “Disagree with the review? Write your own!” and linking to a forum where people can go nuts discussing, criticizing and gushing about their new favorite flick. Providing a proverbial soap box for relatively “safe” discussions about movies, music and theatre is a great way to increase readership, build a community and give the readers a feeling of belonging and contribution. Not to mention that the discussions are often both entertaining and valuable to people who are looking for a good movie to watch or album to buy.
10. Go beyond text to become a broadcaster
The TV stations have been stomping around in your front yard stealing your readers for years. So why not do the same to them? Online video is a largely untapped potential – especially when it comes to local news gathering. And while the TV stations are still on top when it comes to video news coverage, they are restricted by air times and CRTC rules and regulations. Not so with the internet.
With the technological modernization of videography and the recent cuts in many of the broadcast outlets there are thousands of highly skilled TV professionals out there looking for work. All a news paper would have to do to bridge the previously uncrossable gap between print and moving images is to hire some a couple of videographers and send them out with the journalists. The result would be instant news published throughout the day for easy ingestion through multiple devices and sources in a way that the broadcasters still think of as unprofessional and unstructured.
The reality is that video on the web will become hugely important in the years to come and the first people out the door with instant newsgathering and on-demand publishing will be the winners. And for all the value of the written word, some times a 2 minute video is just easier and more interesting to get through.