What does it mean to be a newspaper? Who do newspapers really compete with?

In the keynote speech given by Rishad Tobaccowala at the recent World Congress, he articulated what many others have said: a medium is no longer defined by its distribution model. Newspapers are platform-agnostic. They do not live in a container, and frankly have not for several years now.

I suspect all media owners feel the same way. The degree to which media companies look different has a great deal to do with their core assets and priorities, hence:

  • The New York Times has just launched a weekly TV show.

  • Radio stations are talking about producing newspapers in the belief that they are the purveyors of local news.

  • Some newspapers are talking about moving all their content to tablets and the digital environment.

  • TV stations produce Web sites that look very like newspaper Web sites.

  • Video and graphics are entrenched in newspaper’s Web sites.

  • The business model for newspapers has changed so much that the new revenue streams often have little to do with the printed editions of daily newspapers of 10 years ago.

  • And what is Huffington Post or The Daily?

Today’s newspaper journalists not only carry their notepad and bring along a photo journalist, but now they often bring a video camera or camera man. The latter is a key component of digital journalism and will only expand with the integration of tablets and other e-devices.

Readers expect to go to newspaper Web sites and see pictures and videos related to news items. And that is one of the ways readers interact with their newspaper; they bring stories to their paper by posting local photos (with commentary) relating to breaking news. This can be the catalyst for great stories in newspapers.

What do consumers want? How do they decide what to watch, read or listen to? Are they making the distinction between platforms or content or trusted sources? Newspapers are often compared to other media; perhaps it is time to think less about competing platforms and more about competing content and the platform experience.

Reaching readers through print

In Toronto an estimated 34% of adults watch a news broadcast on the average weekday compared to 44% who read a printed newspaper, and in most markets the printed newspaper reach is closer to 50% each day. Television audiences are more fragmented than newspaper audiences due to the number of time slots and stations. As a result, the average reach per programme for the top 13 weekday options in Toronto range from a low of 1% to a high of 15%. Compare that to the “crowded” Toronto newspaper market which has a total of six daily newspapers with weekday reach ranging from 4% of adults to a high of 22%.

The printed newspaper experience for the consumer, no matter what the content, is very different. Radio and TV news is “by appointment” and the flow is controlled by the broadcaster. Newspapers can be read at any time and the reader controls the flow and nature of the content consumed. This latter option is preferred by today’s consumers who want to tailor their media consumption patterns to their lifestyle, not to have to conform to an arbitrary schedule of someone else’s making.

The lines are blurred in digital

In the digital space a newspaper is more like a TV station or radio station than it is different. All include the written word, sound, still photography and video. Audience estimates published by Google Analytics in the news and information category show that newspaper sites from all over the world rank highly along with a few TV stations.

In Toronto the national broadcaster ranks No. 1, followed closely by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail (national newspaper). In Montreal, cyberpresse.ca, a local French newspaper site, is the top news site followed by the French version of the national broadcaster. TV stations carry not only news but offer viewers the option of watching recently aired programmes.

If newspapers focus on content, they can demonstrate the full impact of their offering. Readership by platform varies by newspaper, market and target group.

  • In Toronto, 44% read a printed product on the average weekday and 12% read at the Web sites for a total reach of 50%.

  • In Montreal, 48% read a printed edition and 10% read at the websites for a total reach of 55%.

  • In Vancouver, 51% read in print and 11% read at the Web sites, for 56% total readership.

Some newspapers have very high Web site-only readership; in Toronto, one of the national newspapers has 29% of their daily readership only to their website. The free dailies have less than 1%.

What is also interesting about the readership of newspaper Web sites is that their content now reaches far beyond their local borders — however, not to the same degree as the broadcaster’s sites or the national newspaper’s site. The TV networks’ reach tends to align more with the population as their core business tends to be national. Local newspapers tend to have a larger reach in their home market but also bring local news and their brand to readers outside their home market.

And now for something new

The field is even more level on the tablet platform where all content providers are quickly learning how to provide meaningful content and experience to their audience.

Newspapers have been fast out of the gate, since one could argue their traditional model is suited to the tablet platform: closed apps with content. However, will this be the model that works for everyone? Apps are not just about content; the issue is more complex, because in this environment it is the experience that will be key when presenting the content effectively. The tablet experience is still in its infancy.

It’s all about the content

So, newspapers should “unlock the value of their content” and trumpet it to the world. If content is the battleground upon which media companies will battle for supremacy, then the industry’s “voice” will play an important strategic role as news organisations move forward. If we tell the world it is about content, the brand, then it will be.

What about the revenue?

One of the traditional boxes the world puts media into is the “share of advertising revenue” garnered by each medium. Here is one simple way to change advertiser thinking. Even though revenues are heavily weighted to the print editions, as audiences continue to shift to digital and between print and digital news, organisations are looking at new ways to augment their revenues. Positioning the industry to demonstrate its strength demonstrates confidence and value.

If newspapers are about their content, then the revenues they generate in both print and digital should be combined and presented to the industry as such. In Canada, digital revenues have historically been allocated to the Internet for print but not for broadcasters.

The latest year for which data is published in Canada was 2009; TV’s share (local and national) of ad revenue (including digital) was estimated to be 29%; daily newspaper’s (print only) at 19%; non-dailies (print only) at 11% and Internet (including newspaper) at 19%. Change the math and put all of the newspaper revenues in one bucket and their share becomes 32%; the number one “medium” based on advertising revenue. Not a withering industry.

Integrated or silos?

Vigorously debated at the World Congress was integrated versus silos sales. There were excellent reasons and strategies employed by different organisations. The more that content is integrated and advertisers see newspapers as content-generating organisations rather than printed products, the sum of the parts will be greater than its silos.

The VG model presented at the World Congress of strong branding across all platforms has been very successful for them. The key challenge, as they pointed out, is developing the skills traditionally associated with other media into your brand. Newspapers are new to the video space but many have partnered, hired or developed these skills to succeed in the digital space against content providers not historically their competitors. It has paid off as newspapers have won awards for video journalism streamed through their sites.

Newspapers are a bit like baseball:

“Ray ... people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
— Terance Mann in Field of Dreams by W.P. Kinsella.

What will tomorrow’s newspapers look like? We will build them and readers will come.