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Go to Australia to learn what's right about the news-on-paper environment


I was warned in advance by my Australian hosts to bring examples outside of the U.S. newspaper industry. While we're interested in what big news brands are doing to grow their business, they said, U.S. newspapers have the reputation of having given up on news on paper. And that experience is not applicable to Australia — maybe never, but certainly not yet.

As a dutiful speaker, I complied. INMA is a big network with nearly 5,000 members in 80 countries. Plenty of stories to illustrate universal truths.

Throughout the PANPA Future Forum last week in Sydney, this caveat loomed in the back of my head. Through meetings with leading publishers News Ltd. and Fairfax Media, this warning echoed.

Other publishers from South Asia to Europe to Latin America to Africa have told me the same.

The two trains of thought among publishers worldwide are that:

  • The United States is an early warning system of consumer and advertiser behaviour.

  • Or, that the U.S. publishers have so under-invested in their print products that they have no root system when disruption hits. Thus, the U.S. story is avoidable in other parts of the world.

Lunch with a wise old Australian friend brought together what I sensed at the PANPA forum.

American publishers, he mused, have given up too quickly on print as a platform of lucrative engagement.

Don't confuse migration of eyeballs to digital platforms with the death of the print platform. Don't abandon all efforts to transform print from our only platform of engagement to “one of several platforms.” Just because print might have a smaller impact in the next five years doesn't mean it's a dead platform.

What the Americans get wrong in print, I was told, is projecting a templated, soulless environment for the consumer who wants to slowly browse. In the past decade, this is an increasingly gaunt-looking print environment reflecting poorly on local media brands that haven't gotten a workout in decades. While quality print newspapers should be platforms for deep engagement, U.S. publishers have created tools to get readers in and out of their print pages in shorter and shorter time increments.

Advertisers won't invest in such a platform, my friend said. They don't want to be associated with platforms devoid of sizzle.

Others at the conference had plenty more to say from what they've viewed from afar — volunteering to the American speaker their views of why their national newspaper industry is different from my country's experiences. For example, the U.S. newspaper brands don't stand for anything other than guardians of a professional journalism standard that — to consumers — feel distant, detached, and unemotional. In design, story selection, and locally written news as a percentage of pages printed, the American publishers have fumbled the print environment.

Sobering. Probably goes too far. Yet interesting perspectives.

By contrast, the conference featured three case studies of newspapers that are getting the print environment emotionally correct: “i” in Portugal, Toronto Star in Canada, and A Crítica in Brazil. The Portuguese newspaper redefines what a brand can be in print with a “daily magazine” design so stunning and different as to defy characterisation. The Toronto Star lives by a set of principles by its most famous owner with a clear “social conscience” viewpoint. And the Amazonian daily A Crítica personifies soulfulness and a reader-first campaign mentality.

The Sydney-based dailies brim with a similar optimistic soul — and are packed with advertising. My friend suggests the two points are related. The Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald and the News Ltd.-owned Daily Telegraph are thick with pages during the week, with virtually all news locally written. The journalism is written in a style and laid out on the page in a way that conveys urgency — local-first, the rest of the world a distant second.

So, how do we reconcile the digital re-wiring of consumer and advertiser markets in the United States, the U.S. newspaper industry's reaction, and this Australian enthusiasm for a resurgence in print that is felt elsewhere in the world?

American publishers are on the front line of digital disruption and are going where the audiences and advertisers appear to be going. By definition, the front line means there's no road map. Mistakes will be made. Yet separate from the recession and the digital disruption, publishers long ago lost a good part of the emotion and soul with their print environments and brands to a point that they're less than satisfying to readers — and, by default, advertisers.

Not all newspapers. Not all features within the printed pages. Yet it is a clear differentiator between print environments in Australia and the United States.

I sense American publishers understand a portion of this, some confiding in me recently that they cut too much in the recent recession.

Yet I would gently suggest that finding emotion and soul isn't about more journalists in a newsroom. It's not about another redesign or a new supplement that updates to 2010 the foundational misalignments dating to the mid-1980s when circulation declines began.

Instead, it's about pounding home your unique reason for existing in your market. A print brand whose every proverbial utterance ends with an exclamation point. Narratives that coalesce around a point of view. A print newspaper that exudes surprise and delight.

The Australian publishers are being disrupted by the internet, too. They enthusiastically embrace the iPad and all manner of mobile devices. Their companies have game plans to transition to multi-media and are far down that road.

Yet they haven't abandoned what it takes to make print a lucrative platform. For that unique value proposition, it's time we all look to Australia.

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