IIm preparing for 10 days of conferences, board meetings, and press interviews about my outlook for media companies in 2010. I don't yet have a “lead” to the story. Yet in keynote presentations at the SNPA, Inland, and INMA conferences in Naples, Chicago, and Liverpool in the coming days, I'll be expected to have a “lead.”

Here's what I know.

2010 will mark the year in which newspapers decide what they want to be post-recession. Real economic growth will return in 2011, as will further disruptions to the status quo such as the semantic web.

The newspapers that shifted expenditures to marketing, sales, research, and digital entrepreneurialism in 2009-2010 will be the ones who succeeded in turning danger into opportunity.

I fear most newspapers simply scaled their expenses to the revenue reality – across the board. And as you know, we don't have “across the board” challenges in our industry. Our challenges are unevenly distributed.

What I've learned from studying newspapers a long time is that when they see the light at the end of the tunnel, the opportunity to change goes away. By this time next year, I suspect the light at the end of the tunnel will be upon us.

My suggestion for newspapers is simple: hurry up! Your editorial departments are too big and too unfocused. Change it. Your advertising sales forces need to sell integrated packages across platforms. Change it. Your internal cultures are not market-focused. Change it. You spend little to nothing on researching your market. Change it. You have the capital base; do something with it before it's too late.

As for key issues facing publishers, I'd say the big one is understanding what being a multi-media company really means. Key issues stemming from this:

  • What value does content have to different audiences on different platforms? Long-form narratives have one value in print, another value online, and still another value in the mobile space.

  • How do consumers interact with our brands across platforms? Does being a multi-media company mean we have to invest more in brand development because the product or platform becomes secondary?

  • How do you sell marketing solutions (advertising) across print, online, and mobile platforms? Can we sell the true value of each medium? Are we shaping our answers to the emerging cross-platform questions coming from the advertising community?

I think that “newspapers” simply became a hybrid medium in recent years, adding platforms without really knowing how they worked. If we're going to be poised for growth post-recession, I suspect 2010 will be the year in which we do a lot of growing up as an industry.

As for a trend or development that I'm watching in the next year, isn't it obvious?

When Rupert Murdoch declared that content has value and that giving it away destroys value, I think it created a healthy tension among newspapers to truly confront their value propositions. The digital gurus have been using old-school arguments about building blind total audience without truly putting a value on audiences, the content that newspapers produce, or the varying platforms that are now being used. Murdoch's declaration brought newspapers out of their shell. I'm optimistic that 2010 will be a year of experiments – good and bad. In a risk-averse industry, that's a big step.

How's that for a start to my outlook for 2010?