Tips on promoting one’s newspaper

October 17, 2014

From the desk of a downsized newspaper veteran

By Ronnie Bell
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

I am a DNV—a Downsized Newspaper Veteran. I am addicted to newspapers. I can’t keep from picking up every one I see and asking myself—“Can this product be made better?”
I love newspapers, I taste newspapers, I smell newspapers—as the old saying goes, “Ink is in my veins.” It bothers me to no end when I hear that a newspaper has died, or how it is struggling to stay alive. For that matter, I also hate that too many commentators are quick to say, “Newspapers are dying,” or “Print is dead.” At the same time I rejoice when I hear of new start ups—and there have been several in the last couple of years. I also celebrate when I see newspapers which are reevaluating what they do, and are striving to make their product more attractive to readers, more productive for their advertisers, and more profitable for their owners.
So, sadness does not begin to describe the feeling I experienced when I recently joined the ranks of the unemployed after getting caught in the crosshairs of a corporate downsizing effort. Eleven other fellow workmates across three states also got their notices that same day, and more have been laid off since.
It was more than enough to cause me to stop and ask myself, “What on earth has happened to the business I love so much, a business with such a rich history of serving as the official record for so many cities, towns and communities across the country?”
It was disheartening to learn that there is even a website called Newspaper Deathwatch! As an industry we may have become a little disoriented, but we aren’t dead and probably have quite a future in front of us, if we are just smart enough to realize it, and if we are willing to listen to our readers and make some adjustments.
Since my layoff, a number of people have said to me, “Well, I guess you’re just another victim of the Internet?” There are even people involved in the newspaper business that have said that to me, but that’s simply not the case.
Everyone seems to think that the rise of the Internet and the digital age is what’s causing newspapers to struggle. Although it may be fair to say it has some impact, my experience tells me that impact is not as great as many might think. Many newspapers were among the first businesses to jump on the Internet bandwagon. I know one community newspaper I worked with had a website in 1995—among the first in its state.
The newspaper industry has had an argument going on within itself for some time about how to utilize the Internet and how to monetize it. Many papers opted for the model that called for placing limited content online for free. Meanwhile, others embraced the idea of paywalls. Many offer a day-pass and other paid options that may include one-week, three-months, six-months or one-year access. Then others have gone with a metered approach, allowing a limited number of free views before a reader must pay.
When I was involved in the last conversion to full content on the Internet, we saw a few “digital only” subscribers added, but not many by comparison to the print product. To me that may indicate it’s not the means of delivery, but what we are delivering that may need attention when it comes to appealing to new readers.
Keeping readers and attracting new ones is the challenge—a challenge that must be met.
The beginning of the recession was when national unemployment rose to 9.6 percent and even higher in some states. Some experts calculated that real national unemployment numbers were north of 14 percent when those who had given up looking for work were counted. That’s when couples, where at least one of the principals was unemployed, were sitting around the dinner table trying to decide how to balance the household budget. As they looked over their expenses, many thought they could do without the local newspaper. Since that time, most newspapers have struggled to get those readers back as subscribers.
Would this have happened if newspapers were putting out a stronger product? It may be hard to say, but one thing is for sure, we really have to put out a product now that lives up to the price we charge. It must be a product that is relevant to our readers—one that they anticipate with every issue because it tells them something they didn’t already know, something that makes them feel smarter and gives them something to talk about.
So, how do we do that?

A path forward
A newspaper readership study was conducted by the Media Management Center and Readership Institute at Northwestern University starting in the late 1990s and has continued since. I was fortunate to be working at one of the newspapers involved in the original study. The project was partnered with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and endorsed by the Newspaper Association of America.
There were four things that struck me about the findings. First was that readers wanted to read about people they knew. Second, they thought reading the newspaper made them smarter. Third, they wanted to be surprised and thought newspapers were too predictable, and fourth, they wanted more news and information on family and parenting issues.
Of course there was much more to the study to be sure. Here are just a few other findings of importance to readers;
• The newspaper gives me something to talk about with others.
• The newspaper looks out for my interests.
• The newspaper touches and inspires me.
• The newspaper takes a stand.
Questions for newspapers were also raised in the study that we should pay attention to, I think now more than ever. Questions such as;
• What content do you offer that is uniquely yours?
• Do our own people know that this is something important and that we want to encourage it?
• Is that content spread throughout the newspaper or does it tend to be congregated in one section?
• Of that unique content, what items have talkability. That is, can you imagine people chatting about it in the coffee room, on the local talk show, etc?
• Was that content promoted in the paper and other ways as well?
• Did the presentation—headlines, packaging, etc.—draw attention to it?
• Was there an invitation for readers to react, or submit questions?
• Are there items in the paper presented and constructed to stimulate thinking?
• At the assigning stage, and at news meetings, do we flag stories that have this potential and pay special attention to treatment?
• Do point of purchase materials, rack cards, consumer sales scripts, etc., focus on something to talk about?
• Are news beats constructed to maximize the discovery and reporting of unusual stories?
• Do we encourage and reward the production of “talking point” or unpredictable items?
• Is our staff sufficiently grounded in the community and the way ordinary people live to recognize talkable items?
I wonder, did we all take notice of these findings? Did we put them to work in our own operations? If not, it’s not too late. A complete copy of the study and its results are available at www.readership.org.

Making the most of technology
Today, there are so many ways newspapers can engage readers, provide relevant content and keep them coming back. We just need to be willing to do it.
Because there are so many digital tools now available, we can look at ways to leverage those assets to not only engage current readers and subscribers, but to also attract new ones.

Here are just a few ideas
• Invite the public to send photos they have taken with their Smartphones for consideration as a freestanding front-page photo. Offer a T-shirt that reads “Best Front Page Photo for the Daily Bugle” when you use a submitted photo. A brief profile and photo could also be used for the person whose photo is chosen. You may even wind up getting a few photos that are suitable for use with a story you are planning.
• Have a daily or weekly subject that is open for discussion. Promote it on Twitter, Facebook and of course in the newspaper and run selected, or all comments in the print and online editions of the newspaper.
• People love looking at old photos. Invite the public to e-mail you vintage photos and run them on a designated page with a photo caption that describes the photo and who sent it. Include an invitation for other readers to send photos. You could call it “Looking Back” or “Out of Our Past.” This could be promoted on Facebook as well to get the word out.
• Check and see what is trending on the Internet and see how you might provide something similar in print and on the newspaper website. Maybe it could be a compilation of the “Top 10” of what is trending from various Internet sources. That would certainly provide a unique content approach making your paper a source for the most talked about things that are going on nationally. If you could somehow devise your own local “Top 10,” from local websites—even better.
• Have a weekly selfie contest. Invite the public to send in their selfie and designate one as the winner each week and award a small prize. Announce the winner in the paper and in the online edition with a reproduction of the winning selfie and brief bio of the winner. If you want to make it interesting, have a different theme each week. This could also be promoted and touted on Facebook.
• When you have a good video posted on the newspaper website that is tied to a story in the print edition, use a Quick Response Code, or QR, that will automatically connect a reader of the print edition who also has a Smartphone or mobile device to the video on the newspaper website.
• Find a comic panel that you can post daily on Facebook as a “Smile of the Day” or the “Daily Grin.” Make sure the paper is identified in the posting so that when the comic is shared, and it will be, that viewers know it is coming from you. A link could be imbedded that provides a special subscription offer. The same comic panel could obviously be used on a designated page in the print edition so that readers will always know where to find it.
• Over the past few years, the idea of a “Shout Out” became popular. Why not have a daily “Shout Out” directed toward some person, group or organization that is doing something to benefit the community or some segment of it? Put it in the print edition and of course, on the newspaper website.
It’s likely that paid sponsors could be found for many of these ideas—that also improves the bottom line and provides expanded reach for advertisers.
On strictly the revenue side of the operation, consider developing online, searchable, vertical sites, linked to the newspaper website for automotive and real estate. It could then be used as a discounted feature for current customers, or as added value for clients who maintain a certain level of spending with you in print.
It can be expensive to establish a vertical site, so shop around. There are now several vendors who offer them. If the cost seems to be prohibitive, consider working with other newspapers in your region to establish a common vertical that can be used by all participating newspapers. One advantage is that the newspaper has the reach to promote the vertical in print and online, as well as with Twitter and Facebook.
I’m sure that if you formed a small group in your newspaper operation, you could come up with lots of great ideas. Then implementation and consistency are the key to success. You can always drop what is not working if you don’t get reader participation or engagement, but give it enough time.
For some newspapers, this sort of thinking may seem too far out-of-the-box to consider, but it just may be the sort of thinking that allows us to expand our reach and increase our footprint in the communities we serve.
Some of these ideas I implemented at my newspaper and they worked, while others listed here were on my drawing board, but I did not get a chance to put them into practice. Maybe you can make use of them now.
The bottom line is to do what newspapers have always done well and look for ways to do it better. And to also look at ways we can increase interest in our product, and also have respect for the reader’s time. After all, that’s what we are in competition for—people’s time. These days it seems people value their time more than ever. They are more distracted and busier than ever, so we have to stand out. We have to make our product worth the reader’s time. For some of us, that may mean rethinking how we do almost everything. © Ronnie Bell 2014

Ronnie Bell, lives in Harrison, AR, and is former publisher of two daily newspapers and three weekly newspapers. He can be reached at creativeteambuilder@gmail.com.

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