I attended our local annual economic forecast event last week, which our newspaper helps to organise, and I was struck by something one of the panelists was trying to convey to the hundreds of local business leaders. His message to us: Don’t get so hung up on the short term that we forget to plan for and address the long-term needs of our state, from an economic development standpoint. In focusing on longer-term needs — in the speaker’s case, he was arguing for more work to improve local and regional education standards — we would, in turn, tackle our short-term challenges.

It seems to me that newspapers would be wise to take the same advice. Although we all have short-term gaps we must fill and goals to accomplish, if we get too focused on the immediate issues and never get around to planning for longer-term goals, we’ll be in the same position (or likely worse off) a few years from now. We’ll still be facing constant budget challenges, be working to best our local competitors in next week’s ad pitch and generally asking our people to do more with less (and often for less take-home pay).

Of course, that’s a tough sell when we all have budgets to hit and good employees we’re trying to keep. We can’t keep our heads in the clouds, wondering about what the newspaper and its digital counterparts might look like in 10 years, and avoid putting out that next special section or digital project. Those projects bring in the immediate revenue we need to keep the lights on. And, of course, there’s only so much time in the day, so priorities must be set (see my previous post, “Speaking the language of your sales staff and customers”). In doing so, I think we should be able to address the short-term needs of every work day in our respective sales departments, but at the same time create new programs and projects that will put us in the best position possible in the years to come.

For my money, the long-term for local, community news operations comes down to mining and managing our data to know as much as we can about our audience; growing and adapting to the ever-changing social media landscape; and consistently developing new products with real-world sales training and application. Any new effort created should have those elements in mind. We shouldn’t worry only about creating special sections or programs that we can monetise, but those that can be utilised to build our databases, be expanded via social plug-ins for internal and external outreach, and offer the opportunity for our sales staffs and advertisers to test new digital advertising avenues. In the process, we’ll provide the kind of local leadership and advanced consultative salesmanship that only a local media entity can provide. 

If the local newsmedia sales force is the one educating and advising local businesses about digital, and is doing so in a way that helps ring the cash register AND show the power of our new digital programs, it will have a huge impact in the important arena: perception. Part of our long-term goal (which can be addressed via some strong short-term efforts), should be to curb the perception that newspapers are old and technologically illiterate. Whether it’s fair or not, perception is often reality, especially for a local business owner who keeps hearing that newspapers are dying and sees every customer with his or her eyes glued to a smartphone. The better we equip our sales staffs with the digital tools and training to be able to impact this perception, and drive not only new revenue but long-term, forward thinking revenue, the better off we’ll be in the coming years. And, frankly, the more of us there will be around to be a part of it.