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Newspapers can learn lessons in relevance from drive-ins and MadMen

11 October 2010 · by Steve Nilan

The harder lesson is to learn how to sustain an industry by demonstrating relevance and by promoting real value to customers.

There's a drive-in movie theatre near where I live in northern California. It's the classic outdoor theatre where we took our now college-age kids when they were too young and fidgety for the cineplex.

I'm not a nostalgic person, but the drive-in evokes memories of an era that was simple and quaint. It was a cheap family night out. Kids were free. You sat in the comfort of your own car and could bring your own snacks. In the “modern” version you could even listen to the movie over your own radio.

It's all a nice memory, but we haven't been back to the drive-in for nearly two decades.

A sign caught my eye when I drove by the old Sacramento 6 Drive-In recently. On the back of one of their huge outdoor screens, they had hung a banner that simply said: “Still Open.” The message was sad and seemed more than a little desperate. It was the polar opposite of

Grand Opening!” and a lot closer to announcing “Contrary to popular belief, we are not quite out of business!

Drive-ins long ago lost their relevance and are the media equivalent of a rock-and-roll nostalgia act. If you're like me, when you see that someone like Chubby Checker is coming to your town, your first thought is, “Wow, is he still alive?” (For the record, the answer is “yes” and Chubby is twisting all over North America right now.)

What does the fate of drive-ins have to do with newspapers? Nothing and everything. It would be easy to write a cautionary tale and cite all the reasons that drive-ins failed:

  • How they were undermined by new technologies (color TV!).

  • How they failed to develop alternative revenue streams fast enough (Sunday flea markets!).

  • How they were left with land that was more valuable than the business they had built on it (eureka!).

I could, but I won't. It's too easy.

The harder lesson is to learn how to sustain an industry by demonstrating relevance and by promoting real value to customers.

In contrast with my local drive-in, I submit the story of a veteran New York advertising executive named Lawrence Brown who created a campaign with the theme “Print makes it real.” Mr. Brown got his start in advertising in the 1960s in the Madison Avenue era that is celebrated in the award-winning TV series, MadMen. His career spans Ogilvy to Google, but he remains a staunch believer in the effectiveness of print advertising. Mr. Brown is quoted as saying that print “hasn't defended itself” against the Internet.

The East Hampton Star has run one of his simple text ads as a house ad to promote newspaper print advertising:

Who would believe the Declaration of Independence if it existed only on the Internet?

Advertise in print. Print makes it real.

This MadMan is no nostalgia act. He may not have a web site, but Lawrence Brown makes a point that is worth considering. To thrive as an industry, we need to find creative ways to stay relevant and not just stay open.

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