Saturday, March 01, 2008

Think big, act small

Some of the coolest, most enterprising and evidently best-executed innovations in the newspaper industry are coming from small papers that don’t seem to be owned by one of the big chains.

Happenstance? I don’t think so.

Unencumbered and undistracted by the bureaucracy that mires the major publishing companies in expensive infrastructure and costly indecision, the editors, publishers and ad sales staffs at some small- and medium-sized newspapers appear to be making good use of the time they don’t spend talking with Corporate.

Instead, they are talking with advertisers, readers and non-readers to discover the products they can build to satisfy them. Then, they are building them.

That’s the picture that emerges in the latest report from the Newspaper Next project at the American Press Institute. The free download of the report weighs in at 108 bandwidth-busting pages, but you can save time by skipping the self-evident 21-page preamble and going directly to the two-dozen case studies of newspapers that have boldy taken initiatives out of the conference room and into the marketplace.

The report discusses the usual and predictable array of pet sites, dining guides, parenting products (including one by the Chicago Tribune for Spanish-speaking readers), and a pair of ambitious business-to-business efforts at the Huntsville (AL) Times and the Cox newspapers in Ohio. But the freshest projects come from modest-sized publications operating far from the bright lights of a big city, to wit:

::, a hyper-local website that’s actually filled with pertinent and valuable user-generated content, was created by the Monroe (MI) Evening News, an employee-owned paper with 20k circulation. The site includes active message boards, a rich and thorough calendar of community activities, a varied and deep selection of user-supplied photos (including a cherry-red 1954 Chevy Bel Air convertible) and a nifty feature on the front of the site called Top Talkers, which cleverly encourages further participation by identifying the people contributing most actively to the site.

:: The Beachcomber, a free, 3k-circulation Tuesday-Saturday paper is published from June through Labor Day by the Portsmouth (NH) Herald, a 12k Ottaway paper. “A hyperlocal daily focused on things to do at the beach” in the seasonal recreational community, the paper is dropped in bulk at the tourist-oriented businesses who pay “shockingly low” rates to advertise in it, according to the N2 report. But it still made a 28% profit margin.

:: DeliveringQC.Com, a site operated by the 43k-circ Moline (IL) Dispatch, is a win-win-win for readers, advertisers and the newspaper. Here’s how it works: The newspaper barters gift certificates from merchants in exchange for advertising in the paper. The paper sells the gift certificates to its subscrbers at about 50% of their face value. When subscribers redeem the certificates at participating businesses, they often spend more than the value of the certificate. “We have offered the platform to other newspapers at very little cost, but most of them don’t get it,” publisher John Newby told N2.

The weirdest project – because it departs so far from the traditional mission of publishers – is the thrift shop opened by the 62k-circ Ogden (UT) Standard-Examiner. Merchandise and customers are attracted by ads in the newspaper's various local media and the paper makes its money by collecting 25% of the value of the junk it sells. Lessons learned include (a) not stocking used mattresses and (b) not asking newspaper delivery drivers to haul furniture.

While innovating new web and print products involves a certain amount of intellectual heavy lifting, the evident success of these local publishing entrepreneurs proves that small, nimble and empowered teams can run circles around the bigger and better-funded entities that are more focused on process and posterior-covering than on good, fast and cheap results.

Rapid, low-friction development is how we got Google, You Tube, Craig’s List, Yelp, Outside.In and the hundreds of other competitors who are eating the breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between-meal snacks of the newspaper industry.

Newspapers intending to survive in the interactive age have to learn to compete in the same way their competitors do. One way newspapers can be more efficient is by entering into partnerships with the exploding number of young technology firms who would give almost anything to access the brand, audience and advertisers that newspapers seemingly take for granted.

If newspaper companies don't start competing effectively soon, more of their shares could wind up like those of Journal Register and the Sun-Times Media Group, which last week both closed below the minumum $1.05 apiece required to trade on the New York Stock Exchange.

Where do you go from there? The bargain bin at Ogden’s thrift shop?


Blogger Coordinator of the Printernet Project said...

I waste so much time trolling the internet hoping I will get lucky and find an answer to a question I didn't know I was asking.

With this post, I got lucky today.

Thank you.

12:14 PM  

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