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Read All About It! How Newspapers Can Survive!

Even though I am no longer affiliated with a newspaper these days, I still regularly punish myself by pondering what, if anything, can be done to save a dying industry I gave my professional life to.

This is depressing work, and the pay stinks (I'm used to that part), but if newspapers are willing to knock off the panic, and take a couple of deep breaths, maybe I have finally come up with a way to be of some help here.

So listen up, newspapers. After all, what do you have to lose ...?

To begin with, newspapers, I have decided that all this high-minded talk by your leaders about charging readers for online content is a magnificent waste of time and resources. It's just a way of avoiding your inevitable demise for a year or so.

The argument that newspapers are done if they don't mine gold online is a false premise, and a sucker's bet.

But now that you have backed yourself up against some pay wall, you must understand that to survive you will have to get younger people to start reading your print product again.

It's both that simple and that difficult. But it's your last and only choice.

Aw, quit wincing. It's true, and more than that, deep down inside you know it.

For crying out loud, The New York Times has decided it needs a year to think about how to make a pay scheme work online. In other words, they have myriad ideas, but not a single clue about how to approach it.

Besides that, most of you community papers with a circulation under, or around, 100,000, don't have a year to sit around and hope for the Gray Lady to produce some kind of miracle monetized digital formula.

Look, I realize that to many of you in the industry the return to print might sound counter-intuitive given the younger set's fixation with the Internet, but who are newspapers trying to capture with their pay schemes online, anyway?

Is it people who are already paying, or have paid in the past, for their print product? Or is it people who don't give a hoot about it, and never have?

You are already getting a revenue stream from much of that first group, and you will never (make that never) get a penny from the people who could have cared less about you in the first place -- especially if they are used to trolling around a place where virtually everything is free.

Younger people don't need you, because they don't know you, newspapers. Unless they start seeing the value of a printed newspaper but quick, you are done.

Use the Internet as a Tool

And before going much further with this tutorial, I want to make sure I am not misunderstood here. I am not saying that newspapers should abandon the Internet, only that they adjust their mission and resources on that platform, and start doing what they train their journalists to do all the time: start looking at this whole thing from a completely different angle.

Newspapers should use the Internet to inform, yes, but should also take that opportunity to push people back to their print products. And I'm not talking about some little breakout box on your home page that sheepishly alerts people to a print product you are overtly believing less and less in.

I am saying be bold. Tell them why they have to take your newspaper. But more on that later.

Right now, newspapers are making approximately 90 percent of their money from the revenue streams derived from circulation and advertising. There is nothing online that comes close to the money that newspapers make from display advertising on their print pages.

Pew Research Center's epic "State of the News Media 2010" report found that fully 79 percent of online users rarely, or never, click online ads. I know I bat 'em away like mosquitoes. People are moving fast on the Internet, and they can't be bothered by these annoying advertising roadblocks.

The majority of product-peddlers are paying a cheap song to advertise their stuff on any of the endless sites on the Internet. Why do you think that is?

So can we agree that the real money is in print? Good. Moving on ...

You Can Go Home Again

Most newspapers have the singular niche of producing the only printed news product in their circulation area. Most likely they also use those presses to gain revenue by printing all those shoppers guides and other informational rags that flood the community.

There's no crowded Information Highway to negotiate on your home turf, either -- only the comfortable circulation routes you've worked bloody hard to nurture and maintain over the years. You have been beating these paths long before the Internet, and this new group of potential readers you are ignoring came along.

Why in the world, then, would you cut and run from your bread and butter, and what's been good to you, toward a place where only the dirt and smut of the porn industry has figured out a way to cash in ...?

You are better than that, newspapers. You need to pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off, introduce yourselves to people that have never read you before, and re-introduce yourselves to people that have gotten out of the newspaper-reading habit.

But, really, you need to quit whining, and running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Yes, this will be hard work, but if you do not do this and start growing your circulation again, you are dead. There is not a single business model anywhere that disputes this.

Man, I hope this is sinking in.

You need to be in the schools and the hospitals. You need to be in the diners and at the ballparks. You need to be in the Rotary Clubs and the YMCAs.

You need to become the integral part of the community that you used to be. And I'm not just talking about the newspapers themselves, I am talking about YOU -- the people that produce them.

Newspapers need to remind people, or in some cases inform them for the first time, that there is no better value for their money than a newspaper that is delivered to their doorstep seven days a week in the early-morning hours, while they are sleeping.

All Politics are Local, So is News

OK, I'll add a caveat to the above: The real value is if that newspaper delivered to their doorstep is relevant to that reader's life.

Therefore, it needs to be stuffed with local news and happenings. And I mean real local. It needs to be about the reader, for the reader. Make advocacy journalism your bailiwick.

Remind your readers, and would-be readers, that you work for them.

Remind them that your job is to attend and report on all those meetings around their communities that shape their lives while they are busy working their jobs, raising their families, or attending their schools.

Remind them that you are there to tell their stories, whether it's on some ball field, in the class room, or on the job.

The Internet and cable television are at it 24 hours a day to render almost all world and national news useless in most newspapers -- and every one that comes in under 100,000 in circulation.

It amazes me how many local newspapers I see to this day that still fly old world and national news across their banner, and think they are accomplishing anything but making themselves look stupid and irrelevant.

When you do this, you going out in 80-point type saying, "Look at us! We are old and out of touch!"
You are scaring readers away, so knock it off.

Further, despite the wild success of the Internet, I do not believe that there is any less fascination with reading about one's self in a printed product.

Print is everlasting and is still unique. It is tangible. It can be passed along, and saved -- framed even. And, yeah, it can even line a bird cage, wrap fish, or be used to scoop up dog poop. Show me a computer that can do all that!

If people can count on a printed product being delivered on their doorstep each morning that is full of news that they can truly use, is about them, and maybe most important, is completely exclusive, do you really think they wouldn't pay a couple of bucks a week for the privilege?!

It's Not About the Money

Do you really think for a minute people aren't taking the paper for a two or three bucks a week these days because they can't afford it?

But the economy's bad, you say?

Well, that should play to newspapers' advantage, too, because they are offering the best value for the dollar right now.

Think of it, two bucks a week to have a paper delivered to your doorstep every day ...

My gosh, there are people standing in line and paying more for a single cup of coffee each morning.

People simply aren't taking the paper these days because they don't see any value in it, or where it fits in their daily lives.

My gosh, there is a whole generation of potential readers -- the ones you must reach -- who missed the importance of newspapers.

Engage them. Hire them for a few bucks in after-school programs. Teach them the value of newspapers, and then send them out into your communities to spread the gospel, and strut their stuff to others of their generation. Be cool, be smart, be informed, read your newspaper!

These kids don't hate you, they just don't know you, newspapers.

Again, and I can't say this enough, if you are about 25 years of age or younger, there is a good chance you have not grown up reading a newspaper.

You are not competing with the Internet here, newspaper folks, only giving people a meaningful reading opportunity.

Finally ...

There is a chance I am wrong here, and this approach will fail, newspapers.

Maybe your greatest days are behind you. But PLEASE don't tell me you are going to go down without a fight. PLEASE don't tell me that your future is on the Internet.

Your grave is on the Internet.

Try flipped things around. Recalculate and go out with a healthy mindset that the sky is the limit. Start going after a new potential print audience that numbers in the tens of millions. Pick off 10 here, and a hundred there. Have a blast!

You can do it, newspapers -- because you have to do it.

Now go get 'em!

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)