I was reading with interest advertisements in The Times this week, offering readers a digital edition of The Sunday Times at R173 for three months and an ‘editor’s choice’ newsletter and daily updates direct to iPads for $0,99 a week.
Good, I thought, another newspaper in South Africa has seen the light and found an alternative to just blindly giving away all its content for nothing on its website.
There is no doubt that one of the biggest mistakes the newspaper industry has ever made, was to stupidly believe that a website was a medium and not a portal. With the result that they simply duplicated what they had in print on their websites and then wondered why their subscriptions went south their sales pear-shaped.
Then, I read on the TheMediaOnline a day or two ago, a somewhat acerbic view of the local newspaper industry – its faults, failings and possible cures – by the now retired group editor of Independent Newspapers in South Africa, Peter Sullivan. (This all got me wondering about newspapers.)
Is just charging for content the answer? And is it also, as Sullivan suggests, maybe a question of putting a lot more good news in among the doom and gloom over which our newspapers are currently obsessed?
Sullivan also had some choice words to say about the way newspapers are run and I have long believed that one of the newspaper industry’s biggest drawbacks is that it has never employed any strategic marketing thinking.
So, what would happen if one had a cold, hard, unemotional look at the future of newspapers from a marketing point of view? A point of view that is based in the premise of “its not what we want to say but what the customer wants to hear” to which one can add the rider, “…and how the customer wants to hear”.
The indisputable facts upon which to base any marketing would probably be as follows:
- Technology is making it simpler, better, faster and cheaper for consumers to receive information including news.
- Social media such as Facebook and Twitter used by citizen journalists in the middle of a crisis, or a professional journalist at the coalface, can bring global news to consumers faster than radio, much faster than TV and infinitely faster than a newspaper.
So, given that social media is beating the daylights out of all conventional media in terms of breaking news, particularly newspapers, which end up lagging by days rather than minutes or hours, what is left for them?
Well, the answer is not simple but perhaps marketers might start by questioning a few paradigms that continue to be doggedly written in concrete.
For starters, maybe it is worth investigating whether that preface “news” in the word “newspaper” is not perhaps a cancer eating away at the very soul of the newspaper?
If it is indeed the case that newspapers can no longer compete with the delivery of hard news, maybe they could look at thinking of themselves as ‘opinionpapers’ in order to get some perspective. Or maybe ‘analysispapers’. Remember, the word newspaper was coined at a time when there was no other way of spreading the news to the masses.
The big question then, is whether it is the name or the medium that has become irrelevant.
The answer to this notion should of course, be based on the specific marketing process that determines the strengths and weaknesses of a brand or product and then concentrating on the developing the strengths. Instead of fighting battles that cannot ever be won.
So, what is a newspaper’s strength?
Let’s leave commercial community newspapers for the moment because they are pretty all still extremely healthy and coining it because they are so tightly targeted and parochial enough for consumers to be able to identify with just about all of the content, including advertising, because it is all perceived to be unique to their little enclave.
But, what about the big mainstream dailies and weekenders? Well, my guess is that one should look back at what gave them the ability, as Sullivan suggested, in the 1960s, ’70s and ‘80s, to provide first class professional journalism. Admittedly without too much competition but the points Sullivan made was about the passion, the professionalism and the drive of journalists back in day, who were mostly not under pressure to produce stories at the frenetic rate required of them today. Those were the days where there were enough hacks in the newsroom to produce great work, unlike today where numbers have been cut back radically especially in groups such as INM. Not to mention the fact that hacks did not constantly have the real or perceived threat of retrenchments hanging over their heads, nor were they pressured by the need for revenue generation.
It does not require market research to confirm that the standard of journalism today is, with only a few exceptions, paltry, to put it politely.
On the positive side, I think it can now also safely be said that the tidal wave of bloggers who threatened to usurp the position of professional journalists, has largely dwindled. Sure, bloggers are still relevant but only relevant in the same away that callers to a radio phone-in show are relevant to the success of radio. The quality of the talk show host on radio is what counts.
I believe that what the consumer wants is not only news but also intelligent opinion and analysis of news. Newspapers can actually do this better that most media.
Many years ago, Italy saw the launch of its first newspaper in 100 years. It was called La Repubblica and is now the biggest paper in Rome. It did not employ a single reporter but rather contracted with experts and professionals who provided analysis and background.
It became the world’s first ‘opinionpaper’.
I also remember talking to the doyen of radio talk show hosts, John Berks, many years ago. He was telling me that he really hated it when callers insisted a wanting his opinion on subjects about which he knew nothing at all.
We concluded that his knowledge of the subject was beside the point – his listeners wanted to hear what he had to say about things. Therein lies a clue to what consumers want to hear.
In the same vein, I wonder just how many newspaper sales are as a direct result of readers wanting to see what cartoonist Zapiro has to say. Or Justice Malala, Max Du Preez, Fred Khumalo or any one of the many outstanding and outspoken columnists that grace our newspapers but who play second fiddle to the front-page stories that editors believe will carry more interest for readers.
Newspapers also need to look closely at one of their most-read features – letters to the editor – on one hand a very basic interactive component but which marketing might prove is increasingly becoming reader reaction to columnists.
It is a fair bet that marketing analysis will show that with the way which technology is moving, newspapers as purveyors primarily of breaking news, will not survive.
It’s also not outside the bounds of credibility that product marketing analysis will show that if newspapers are able to return their current newsrooms to centres of content development and then concentrate on opinion and analysis, things might just go a lot better.
Newspapers desperately need to start marketing themselves. What they are doing now is not marketing. Not even close.
It is ironic that the business pages of newspapers carry case histories of successful brands – all of which today have powerful marketing underpinnings, but those who produce the newspapers are taking no notice of what they are demonstrating in their own pages.
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