Sorry to disappoint the pundits, but newspapers survived the storm


RRading through the inevitable year-end looks back at 2009, it's amusing to see how the pundits have just now “discovered” that the worst economic pounding in eight decades didn't actually kill newspapers after all.

That hardly makes newspapers a growth industry. That hardly means there aren't more cutbacks to come. That hardly means we shouldn't double and triple efforts to regain key advertising categories. That hardly means we shouldn't shift budgets toward business-building activities such as sales, marketing, research, and digital. That hardly means it hasn't been one hell of a ride.

Yet it does mean that what INMA has repeatedly said this year has proven true:

  • There is no pending death of the newspaper industry.

  • Second-tier newspapers in the best of times would die in the worst of times.

  • Debt-laden corporate parents stole the headlines, while the newspapers they owned quietly scaled operations and maintained profitability.

  • Newspapers with generic missions positioned in the middle of their markets will be at-risk for the foreseeable future.

  • Newspapers were dramatically over-staffed with journalists, a bubble inflated by advertiser demand and not reader demand.

Despite continued cutbacks in the vaunted Washington Post newsroom, for example, the newspaper still employs more than 800 full-time journalists – roughly double the number that worked there in the halcyon days of Watergate.

I witnessed more of a marketing focus at newspapers in 2009 than in the past two decades, combined. A simple formula emerged with value created through an intense focus on “audience + content + platform.” Rupert Murdoch nudged us all along this path with his efforts to monetise content – which he did by defying the pundits through a smart segmentation of content rather than a monstrous paywall.

My biggest concern for newspapers remains cultural incrementalism. We spend inordinate hours on finding perfect processes to integrate with the existing cultural structure. Instead, we need to create cultural workarounds that unleash entrepreneurialism and provide publishers with strategic alternatives to serve audiences and advertisers.

As we enter 2010 on surer footing, have we learned enough lessons to create growth agendas? Or do we re-emerge from the storm shelters and continue business as usual?

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