Newspapers' death greatly exaggerated
Printed publications remain surprisingly strong advertising vehicles

Although the rise of the Internet has put many in the news industry under increasing pressure, the daily newspaper has held up quite well, and remains a remarkably strong ad medium.

"Rumors of the newspaper's death have been greatly exaggerated," said Sunni Boot, president of Optimedia Canada. "But like all media, they will have to re-engineer themselves to deal with the challenges of the digital age."

Boot, as head of an agency that coordinates $200 million a year of ad purchases on behalf of blue chip clients such as Microsoft Canada, Nestlé and Wal-Mart, makes decisions every day, on whether her clients' money will be spent on newspaper, television, radio, or other ad media.

In the four years since large-scale commercialization of the Web began, what is surprising is not how much the daily newspaper has been forced to change, but how little. After all, with the Net's promise of a virtually free distribution channel for text and graphics, many were predicting the collapse of print media.

In fact, dollars spent on newspaper advertising have continued to increase each year according to the Canadian Newspaper Association, including a jump of 3.28 per cent in 1998, to $1.69 billion, the last year for which data are available.

And although Monday to Friday paid circulation numbers have dribbled downward by couple of percentage points for many major publications during the last four years, the result has been nowhere near the catastrophe many expected.

"Newspaper quality has gone up dramatically in Canada," said Boot. "Not just the Internet, but also the appearance of the National Post, has forced all papers to boost quality." Heated competition in the Toronto region has created the unexpected situation in which the newspaper market actually grew.

Recent Audit Bureau of Circulation numbers from the United States, indicate that larger papers are doing better than smaller ones, with eight of the ten largest papers reporting circulation increases for the six months ended March 31.

What we are seeing is a death of the middle," said Boot. "Both the major dailies and the small local newspapers will likely find a niche, but the mid-market papers are experiencing the greatest pressure."

Two factors are helping newspaper companies in adapting to the Net: recognizable brand names and ready-made content. The strong brands many papers have created such as New York Times, Wall Street Journal mean that when readers look for news on the Net, they often migrate to the newspaper companies' own Web-sites.

The print organizations therefor often retain their readers, albeit in a different medium. This is far preferable to losing them to news sites created especially for the Net, such as Salon.com and Slate.com, or to the television companies' Web-sites such as MSNBC.com or CNN.com.

Solid content is also helping daily newspapers weather the Internet storm. Since they already have newsgathering organizations in place, once the stories are written, it is a fairly simple operation to upload content onto a Web-site. Internet only news organizations have to start their newsgathering teams from scratch.

Television news organizations that put their content on the Net are not providing serious competition for the time being. TV news stories look awful thin when seen in print form, where their lack of depth becomes quickly apparent.

Newspapers are attractive to advertisers because of their reach. By placing one or two ads in most markets, companies can reach a substantial portion of a target group. Unlike television advertising which is sometimes booked a year in advance, newspapers offer advertisers considerable flexibility.

When companies need to respond to attacks from the competition, or crisis situations like a strike, full-page newspaper ads can usually be arranged in 24 hours. Only radio and Internet offer faster response times, but neither can deliver the same mass audience.

Where the newspapers continue to be threatened most by the Net, is in the classified advertising sections that comprise a lion's share of their ad revenues. The jury is still out on whether they can succeed in the migration of their classified ads online, as a profit center, while competing with companies that are offering the service for free.

The Internet is a good medium for providing instant information such as breaking stories, stock prices, baseball scores and weather reports, and consumers are likely going to want to get this information for themselves, rather than wait for it to land on their doorsteps.

But these vast amounts of information are far too imposing for most mere mortals to absorb. Where newspapers can increasingly add value, is by focusing more on editorial and commentary content, that give readers a conceptual framework through which to understand a fast changing world.

"People can get much of the information they need online. What they need is a way to distill it," said Boot. "That's why the papers that can adapt, will always be in high demand."

 

E-mail can be sent to Peter Diekmeyer at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

 

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