PART B: BE BOLD
So now: What can newspapers do to lure readers back to print?
As our quiz last week suggested, after our 30-year honeymoon with computers, and 20 solid years on the Internet, people are getting tired of screens and starting to miss the newsprint experience. It’s time for newspapers to earn their way back into readers’ minds and pocketbooks. Here are some suggestions:
Fight for Your Paper
Everybody’s waiting for publishers to do something — to, in the first place, define the benefits of newspapers that computers can’t offer. If you run a newspaper, the time has come to get out there and tell readers: Our paper publishes the kind of stories in print that you can’t find on the Internet.
This means that the newsprint version will be different from the website version, so you have to believe in it. If you don’t think that newspapers are far ahead of the Internet in key ways, get outta the biz.
Create an Aggressive Ad Campaign
Billboards, cable TV, talk radio, buses, cabs and yes. computer banners are waiting for newspapers to re-stake their claim.
Run the most simple kind of ad:
*a giant photo of the morning newspaper invitingly spread out on a kitchen counter or desk, next to
*a cup of steaming coffee
*a blank computer screen.
*a headline like one of these:
GIVE YOUR EYES A BREAK
NO CLICKS, NO BANNERS, NO POP-UPS, NO NOISE
WE PUT IT ALL ON THE TABLE
YOUR WRISTS, YOUR EYES, YOUR BACK WILL THANK YOU
TAKE A MINI-VACATION EVERY MORNING
WE PAY PEOPLE TO BRING YOU THE WORLD AT A GLANCE
Get Your Executives Behind It
Start right now to train your executive management to place this campain on a person-to-person level. Get your PR department to book these top guys on the media and lecture circuit. You should join them and speak to groups ranging from Rotary to Wiccan, Unitarian to Morman, book clubs to fight clubs and every school and library in town. (Take the Freedom of Speech-in-jeopardy angle and you’re in.) Go on talk shows, start blogs, help with charities, sponsor events.
This old-fashioned passionate appeal 1) heightens morale, which is currently in the gutter because you’ve cut your staff to shreds and nobody knows who’ll be terminated next, and 2) it stops general readers from feeling sorry for newspapers as expendible dinosaurs and reestablishes high journalistic standards (and deliciously low entertainment values) that work best in newsprint and promise to enrich daily life.
Distinguish the Print Version from the Website Version
Maybe adjustments have been made inside newspaper offices all along, but we readers can’t see them. It’s as though newspaper publishers have given up on the print version, as though they’re waiting for the day when advertising for the paper’s website covers the bills better than advertising for the print version. By the time they’ll have to close down the latter (with more poor-us/not-our-fault press releases), a world of innovations and ideas will have mowed them down.
But if you bring a new identity to the print version now; if you provide absolutely essential news in the morning paper that doesn’t exist on the website version (wait for a day or two; then post), you’ll have a fighting chance. And you have to believe in that chance to keep your present circulation and convince new readers to subscribe.
Make the Print Version Invaluable
Here are some examples:
Invest in In-Depth Articles
Let’s admit it – computers have made us a nation of impatient readers. We rarely finish lengthy pieces because of the pressure to scroll fast and click away to the next new thing. Besides, nobody likes reading longish material on a screen (with the exception of books on E-readers and iPhones; another story).
On the other hand, settling into a longer piece in the morning paper is a delicious prospect. It’s like reading the New Yorker when you give yourself some privacy and time away from noisy and invasive screens. Articles in the print version don’t have to be very long – it’s just that they’re juicier, more thoughtful, more substantial, more knowlegable, even memorable.
(This is one of the things you’ll have to sell to younger readers who’ve never had the newspaper experience, but once they start looking forward to the originality and fresh writing of in-depth stories, they’ll be hooked.)
So let the newspaper’s website handle the flow fast-breaking news and changing opinion. Publish the better written, in-depth articles – undercover, investigative pieces are a natural — in the printed newspaper and let people savor the writing for a day or two. Then post it.
Return the At-a-Glance Feature
I can’t believe how often a fascinating chart or map appears on the Internet but is too big to fit on the computer screen. The only option is to explore it in sections, which the computer enlarges for you, but I’m always disappointed that I can’t see the big picture.
A recent example is the revealing illustration called “Big Bangs” that’s spread across page 71 of the July 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine. (That’s the issue with another I-look-like-an-alien-but-try-not-to-notice photo of Jeff Bezos on the cover).
This multi-branched family tree follows the first breakthroughs in communication from the “Primordial Ooze” at the bottom (e.g., Gutenberg, rotary phones, radios, etc.,) through the branching out of subsets (8 tracks! PDAs! clamshell phones!) and the flowering of present day electronics (iPhone, Kindle, Wii/Xbox, MacBook) in the leafy top.
“Big Bangs” is an ingenious way to see historical connections you might have missed otherwise, but there’s a huge disappointment for computer users: You can’t find it on the Internet!
Oh, parts are revealed, depending on what gadget your cursor touches, but you can’t see the whole mesmerizing vision at once because it’s too big for the screen. Even if the illustrator tried to squeeze it all on, you’d strain your neck leaning forward to read the tiny labels, and then the experience wouldn’t be fun or informative. It would be work.
So this is one thing newspapers can do that the Internet can’t. Newspapers can spread out their great newsprint wings and give us the big picture of just about anything that matters. They can provide a single at-a-glance feature that tells us more in a few minutes about the way things work than a blog like mine can do (obviously) in the above six paragraphs.
Bridge the Gap to the Internet
An entire team of reporters should be exploring the Internet for little known, completely enthralling and absolutely indispensable websites serving every kind of interest. Nothing obvious here: These websites are so intriguing by themselves that a whole page of them will grab the reader’s attention and make life richer to boot.
Again you need the advantage of the in-print edition’s big fat physical pages; and you can incorporate the irreverence of Internet writing to kick a little s— around in the descriptions of each website, complete with accompanying screen grabs and maybe a customer quote or two. This kind of section can instantly become the One Thing Advertisers Adore: a page readers will cut out, save, discuss and return to for months.
Again, you can post the text in its many parts on the website version a few days later. But you start with the in-print version because every publication of, say, Can’t-Miss URLS is such a natural for the one- or two-page spreads only newsprint can provide.
Hire Local Bloggers
To cut costs, most newspapers have foolishly downsized their top writers and are now junking up the pages with wire service news and syndicated features. As a result, the newsprint paper becomes a joke by any journalistic standard, and subscribers cancel in droves.
As a former Writer’s Guild member, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but now that publishers have sabotaged the labor landscape, why not exploit the absolute treasure trove of independent contractors that exists all over the Internet?
I’m talking about the kind of gifted bloggers who would love to write for the in-print version, and for pennies, because it’s still true that the local newspaper, if it’s any good, sets the standard for everybody else. You want fresh and original material for the morning paper? These guys are already doing it. They’re available, adventurous and affordable.
And don’t re-run their blogs in your pages! You need a fresh take on everything in the newsprint editions. Establish new “beats,” explore neglected neighborhoods, investigate unheralded but worthy causes, profile City Hall eccentrics and, beef up the sports/business/arts section with differently gifted writers whose contributions cqn be vital.
Relish (Don’t Abandon) the Print Experience
My own paper (the San Francisco Chronicle) missed a huge opportunity by leaving a hole where its famous columnist, Herb Caen, wrote a daily column for about 60 years. Caen liked to bill himself “Mr. San Francisco” and appeared to be everywhere at once – at opera openings, baseball games, murder scenes, dinner parties, corporate boards and every closet you never wanted the world to know you were in. A lot of people didn’t like him but everybody read him, for one thing because he could be very funny and for another because he loved San Francisco so much that he made everybody teary whenever he wrote mawkishly about it.
Why the Chronicle didn’t try to fill that hole over the past dozen years since his death is a puzzle. I have a feeling editors said, Oh, no one can replace him, we can’t soil his memory, he was one-in-a-million, and so forth (all of which surely sent Caen rolling in his grave).
But while the appeal of “Mr. San Francisco” went out with Fred Astaire movies, the continuing wonder is that the function of a column like Herb Caen’s is timeless: Every item in celebrated the “only in San Francisco” phenomenon that drew every reader into the same socialized stew, as it were – that ongoing sense of community that you rarely feel for some reason (well, I don’t) on newspaper websites. (Interestingly you get it in spades on networking sites like Facebook and Tweeter.)
That’s what we would lose if we abandon the print experience as far as newspapers are concerned. When you live in a town, when you’re conscious of local issues, when you vote, when you learn about a new restaurant or theater or school in the neighborhood, you want a place that centralizes all that potboiling citizenry stuff and keeps serving it up afresh. Very often it takes a big, beautiful sheet of real estate called the morning newspaper to make sense of modern life, and that’s what newspaper publishers have got to reinvent, support with real money and believe in today.
One Last Example
It was nice to see that New York Times article about a newspaper like the Seattle Times doing well, even if “Resurgent as a Solo Act” meant the Times boost its circulation by gobbling up the competition. The question now is, will the Times remain worthy of those readers. Will it give them something extra, or even more important, something essential that they can’t get on the Internet?