Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fourth publisher the charm for LAT?

The fourth publisher since 2000 could be the charm for the Los Angeles Times.

Eddy Hartenstein has a shot at success, because, unlike his three predecessors, he has the decided advantage of not being a newspaper guy.

Accordingly, he is under no professional or personal obligation to preserve, protect and defend his track record or the practices of an industry whose business model has not changed materially since Benjamin Franklin was a lad.

But the tradition and the inertia of the Times will catch up with Eddy quickly – and potentially drag him into the same black hole that consumed his predecessors – if he fails to follow these three simple rules:

1. Listen to advertisers and non-advertisers, not your sales staff.

The overwhelming impulse throughout the newspaper industry is to do everything possible to keep the business in 2008 as much as possible like it was in 2000. It would be nice if newspapers could do so. But let’s get real.

Many retail, auto, recruitment and real estate advertisers in the last eight years have lost faith in the print advertising that accounts for some 90% of newspaper sales. They won’t come back when the economy rebounds.

But advertisers still need customers and still want to improve their market share. The Times can be a powerful partner for them, owing to its widely known brand, its unparalleled content-generation capabilities and the millions of print and online impressions that it delivers every week.

If Eddy spends time talking with his customers (and non-customers) to learn what they need, he will have an abundance of resources at his command to create the new print and online products that advertisers want.

2. Listen to readers and non-readers, not journalists.

With all due respect to the newspaper’s distinguished news staff, most reporters and editors have lost touch with what modern readers – and non-readers – want.

If they could bring themselves to having sincere, open-minded and no-holds-barred discussions with the consumers (and non-consumers) of their product, this talented group could respond by producing any number of innovative print and interactive products.

But most journalists are wedded to preserving the “Father Knows Best” approach to journalism, wherein they decide what is important; they do the reporting and writing, and they decide what the reader gets to read and when she gets to read it.

One-way journalism doesn’t fly with most younger readers – and it is barely clearing the runway with older ones, either. People increasingly are accustomed to picking and choosing what they read, hear and watch. If they don’t like the available media, they are ready, willing and able to make their own.

To reassert its relevance in the busy lives of its readers (and to attract non-readers), the Times needs to stop trying to emulate the New York Times or Washington Post and concentrate on becoming a top-notch regional publication that runs shorter, tauter, more analytical and more forward-looking stories. Editors should take the path of least resistance in relaying information, too, meaning that sometimes a graphic, original document or a page of data will be a better way to tell a story than a 1,000-word yarn.

The website is too important to remain a largely static repository for articles published in the prior day’s newspaper. The site needs to become an organic, dynamic and interactive mirror of the community. Journalists need to come down from their ivory towers to encourage, moderate and, when appropriate, supplement online reader comments on major stories. In other words, journalists need to engage their audience, not lecture it.

And, yes, editors need to help the advertising department develop the new features and products that will help stabilize and grow revenues.

3. Stop playing defense. Try new stuff.

Newspapers are a lot like factories filled with big, red buttons that any worker can punch to stop the assembly line in an emergency.

In an age of shriveling revenues and shrinking payrolls, those buttons are getting pushed all too often by the functionaries at publishing companies who don’t understand how to respond to the new market realities, are afraid to change and understandably are terrified of their losing jobs.

Eddy can’t rely on information and advice from people operating out of ignorance, self-interest and fear. And he can’t let them slow him down, either.

In introducing himself to the staff this week, Eddy said he likes to manage by walking around and promised to "talk to any existing, new or prospective advertiser," according to an account in the Times.

It sounds as though he is off to a good start. But he had better watch out for those big, red buttons.


Blogger Jim Scripps said...

You're articulating points that should be obvious within the industry, but for some reason - perhaps cultural or generational - Pubs and Eds aren't getting it. They sit on the shore, unable to determine whether it's a 50-foot wave or a 100-foot wave about to wash over them. And they are holding umbrellas.

The advantage newspapers have is the same one they have had over other media for decades -- content production. If they can step into the present, meet their future audience and customers, they can parlay this strength into a sustainable business model. It can happen, but if newspapers continue to regenerate the same executives with the same worn-out biz model, don't hold your breath.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great advice, Alan. I only hope he reads newspaper blogs.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally I am reading an article that tells it like it is. Newspapers, from the owners to the reporters to the advertising sales people, have no clue what their customers (readers and advertisers) want. And even worse, even though newspapers are sinking like the Titanic, they don't even seem to care. Newspapers have held a monopoly on print advertising since Ben Franklin and that is the business model they have grown accustomed to. But now that monopoly is over. Newspapers don't own that market now. But they’re still acting as if they are in charge. When will they learn that, on the Web, customers are in charge? I guess after the ship goes down.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Brady Westwater said...

Regarding your suggestion that Hartenstein listen to his readers (and non-readers): at the recent panel discussion on the future of the LA Times I proposed the paper have a series of charettes where the potential users of the product (both readers and advertisers)collectively redesign the paper to meet their needs.

For those not familiar with charettes, there are often used to alolow the public to give input on the design of parks, builings, and public faciiites - and I can think of no more public 'facility' that could use this type of informed input than the LA Times.

The advantage of this type of forum is first there are facilitators who willhelp define the problmes and the questions and then when the consumers listen to each other and debate each other - it will help generate more suggestions and help refine the the better ideas.

I also volunteered the assistance of the Neighborhood Coucnils in setting up the process.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eddy Hartenstein absolutely needs to revitalize the business side of the company and show them how to sell ads and market the brand in the post-monopoly era. But the problem is not with the editorial product. Print and online readers combined, more people than ever want what the LA Times publishes. Paid circulation is declining because people have figured out that they can get it for free online. Also, spare us the "be a regional paper with shorter articles" cant. Maybe that's what you want in a paper, but Times readers are a sophisticated, cosmopolitan bunch who demand world, national and in-depth coverage with a West Coast perspective, not generic stuff from the wires. And your description of the Times web site sounds like you haven't seen it in the last year or two. Check it out today -- there are no stories featured on the home page that were in "yesterday's paper." The Times now regularly publishes stories online first. Journalists are blogging and inviting reader comments. Digital video cameras are being handed out across the newsroom, and everyone is getting web publishing technical training. Come on, Alan, the world is moving fast. Try to keep up.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know who you're talking to, but some Tribune papers have been listening to nobody but the readers and advertisers for years. At my paper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, we've been sitting listening to marketing surveys for at least three years.Whoever the hell they're listening to, it clearly ain't the reporters and the editors.
And the results of 3 years of marketing control?: continued drops in circulation and a severe drop in minutes spent online at the site, from 11 minutes a year ago to 3 this year, according to the latest ratings.

6:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting advice. But if I had the ear of Eddy -- or any top newspaper publisher -- my advice would be simple: Stop listening to your consultants. Start listening to your accountants.

For years, these dot com era consultants -- the ones I've met have never worked for a content production company -- have urged newspapers to adopt the best practices of the new media world by changing the way they committed journalism. Reader engagement. Reporter blogs. Multimedia. RSS feeds.

Newspapers were slow to respond, I'll grant that. But respond they did. As Anonymous noted before me, many -- most? -- mid- to large-sized newspapers now offer multimedia, blogs, RSS feeds, chat, and all of their content -- free, fungible, without even a registration requirement. The papers even encouraged sites like HuffPost to lift their content, because the consultants said that would drive traffic to the newspaper sites.

The results? The growth in online revenue, never more than about seven percent of newspapers' average revenue, has begun to slow. And the consultants' response? "You just didn't do enough. More blogs. More chat. More trying to duplicate and facebook and huffpost. And do it faster this time."

The funny thing is, as Anonymous notes, the journalism -- the product these consultants are insisting must be changed -- remains enormously popular. Newspaper reporting remains the factual backbone of American public discourse. And while some online sites are dipping a toe into content creation -- and I sincerely wish them the best of luck -- not one comes close to duplicating the work of paid journalists at regional and national papers.

The consultants, faced with this conundrum, ask us to rely on faith -- do what they advise, and somehow, someday, it will work out. I have never seen any data supporting this argument. I've seen plenty of data showing that the steps newspapers have taken so far has not helped their bottom line.

Now, ask an accountant the same question, and I suspect you'd get a different answer. Any competent accountant would look at newspapers and say, "Well, this is silly. You have an enormously popular product. Everybody uses it. But you have no plan to bring in enough money to pay for creating that content. Your chosen model -- free content supported by ads -- is a bust; it's collapsing on the print side, and the online side is paper-thin and shows signs of shrinking. Find a new revenue stream or go out of business."

"But," says the publisher, "What about chat? What about reader interaction? What about multimedia?"

"Doesn't pay the bills," says the accountant. "Sure, make it part of your package. But figure out -- first -- how to make money from what you're selling. Those Web 2.0 sites you're copying? They don't create content. And many of them aren't making money, either. Get creative -- sell niche content in magazine format, make your paper a channel to the highest-bidding ISP, find a way to make corporate sponsorship work ethically. Doesn't matter what you do, so long as it pays the bills -- and soon."

I like the idea of improving journalism. I'm excited to be part of an era where the Franklin model is being supplanted -- by what, I don't know. But right now, I want every American publisher to ask just three questions when presented with a new idea for overhauling a newspaper:

"How will this help my bottom line? By how much? And when?"

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Working, for the telling the truth. Here's the numbers, folks:

Alan, love your website, but tell me how an over-leveraged company like Tribune gets out from under this reality? Your basic assumption that you can kiss the backside of advertisers and keep readers happy is nonsense. Your formaula would just turn every part of the paper into "T" - and we are all so looking forward to that fine journalism.

10:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What bull! Yes, the newspaper industry is in trouble. But to give free rein to readers and advertisers to create their own content and call it journalism is crap.

If we allow that to happen, it won't be long before we will be asking, "Who can we trust?"

All media make mistakes but to have no model in place by which "content providers" or "the customers in charge," must adhere to in providing the news, makes no sense.

The buck has to stop somewhere. If we invite others to participate in the news gathering process, we are inviting their mistakes and the liability for those mistakes.
I promise, attorneys will find "the person in charge" and ask them to pay when mistakes are made.

I agree with "working." The response to online attempts by newspapers is tepid at best.
It is not bringing in the revenues publishing companies expect and want. People want the news to be free. It's free on the Web. It's free on TV. It's free on the radio.

There are creative things we could be doing but what is being done online by newspapers ain't the answer.

10:57 AM  

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