OOe of the tragedies of today's recession is that many newspaper executives are unable to attend the many wonderful industry conferences that provide opportunities for rejuvenation. You can look at the PowerPoint presentations and hear the reports, but this captures perhaps 20% of actually being there.

One can't innovate from a cave, though a few publishers are trying to prove me wrong.

I attended a few of these conferences in recent weeks, including the INMA/OPA Europe Conference in Liverpool. Below are three presentations that piqued my curiosity.

Reinvent newspapers based on profitable audiences, multi-media, differentiation

Juan Señor, partner with Innovation Media Consulting Group, told the INMA/OPA Europe conference in Liverpool of the four great choices facing newspapers in this rapidly changing marketplace: a) exit; b) sold or be taken over; c) cut until the cash cow bleeds to death; or d) reinvent the business by focusing on profitable audiences.

Señor lamented the vanilla journalism that pervades newspapers in many countries: similar headlines, similar deadlines, similar approaches to similar stories. He cited recent re-imagined newspapers such as Liberatión in Paris, “i” in Portugal, Correio da Bahia in Brazil, and others as taking approaches aimed at younger audiences that are more like “daily paper iPods.” All three newspapers are growing audience as a result of recent changes.

The U.K.-based consultant said that only from an internet base can media companies truly build “multi-media news organisations.” He advocates “total multi-media organisation based on audiences and with a platform-agnostic strategy in the newsroom and the board room.” He called this “one digital kitchen” with “several restaurants.”

Among the coming changes for newspapers: frequency will change, Saturday will become the new Sunday, and the money to be made is found Thursday through Sunday. Paper is the premium, while online and mobile are the mass media.

What made this session so interesting, in retrospect, was the tart questioning of Señor by Xavier Verellen, chief commercial officer of De Persgroep in Belgium, who suggested that there is little evidence that multi-media integration – especially in advertising sales – has real return on investment. Verellen re-emphasised the point in a formal presentation the next day in Liverpool. De Persgroep is one of the few major publishers that puts print at the center of its business development strategy and has results to back up this strategy.

Former Playboy CEO: extending your brand full of nuances

Christie Hefner, former CEO of Playboy Enterprises, told an Inland Press Association convention in Chicago that newspapers must decide whether they are in the “railroad business” or the “transportation business.” Yet that choice is full of nuances.

She faced such a choice in the 1980s as Playboy faced growth options. Burdened by losses as Playboy spread across magazines, clubs, gaming, and restaurants, Hefner went through a painful process of “dumping the losers.”

Instead of extending the Playboy enterprise into other print magazines as was customary at the time, she extended the brand into cable television and repositioned the brand as “quality, sexy entertainment for couples.” Today, the cable television arm of Playboy is its most profitable aspect.

In short, Hefner believes content and brands must “live beyond print.”

And it's important for companies to morph their brands at the height of success – not the depth. For example, Netflix has overtaken Blockbuster in the physical DVD movie rental business through their innovative use of mail-in rentals. Yet Netflix is aggressively moving onto the internet, and today 20% of Netflix customers buy video streaming.

Analyst says “too much content,” consolidation inevitable, newspapers too negative on themselves

Lauren Rich Fine, a former media analyst with Merrill Lynch in the United States, told the INMA/OPA Europe Conference in Liverpool that there is “too much news” and “too much content” in today's deflationary marketplace and there likely needs to be “rampant consolidation.”

Fine was a quote machine during her presentation. Highlights include:

  • “Newspapers need to define who they are now that they've grown up.”

  • “Advertising sales are so bad because the editorial side wouldn't let them be good.”

  • “Newspapers should have more fun,” she said in a response from a European questioner on why American newspapers are bland and boring.

  • Lamenting how newspapers intensify the negative coverage of their own industry, she cited a U.S. newspaper that published blaring headline about how the Wall Street Journal laid off 15 people, while in a smaller headline they mentioned that IBM had laid off 15,000.

  • Newspapers “tell a story of a glass half-empty” when reporting on themselves.

  • “It's hard to catch a falling knife,” Fine said about perceptions of newspapers fueled by their own reporters.

  • Unlike most American executives, Fine is “not opposed to a blind pool of government funding” for newspapers.

Conclusions

For many newspaper companies, the key employees that you've retained in this recession have not attended an industry conference in years – or haven't been exposed to enough ideas and people to make a breakthrough difference back home.

If you're serious about growth and retaining these key employees, make certain that you provide them the opportunity to rejuvenate in 2010. There are many conference options worldwide, including INMA.