Summer Saturday mornings in our house are spent at my son’s cricket game, which means four glorious hours of working my way through the newspaper from cover to cover. (This is the highlight; after seven years, I still have no idea what is going on in the field.)

The only interruption is the need to look up occasionally, say “good job,” and clap at some particularly capable piece of fielding or batting. (I confess I just follow the other parents in this regard.)

But what I love about the morning is how the newspapers are divided up and shared across the parents and the conversations about what we have read. You cannot read an iPad at the cricket. You cannot see the screen in the glare of the sun, for one thing, nor can you divide up the sections and physically share them around.

But I found myself deeply annoyed recently as I scoured the weekend cinema listings. Hubby and I thought we might check out a movie. We knew what we wanted to see and, as there were several full-page ads from local cinemas, it seemed a straightforward piece of planning: Identify cinema playing our movie, work out the time, nice night out.


One of the major cinema chains has decided to go down a new path of “branding” advertising. This involves listing all the movies that are playing at a particular cinema and insisting you go online to find out the screening time.

The advertisement was the same size (a full page) as its competitors. It had an identical “module” for each of the multiple cinemas in the chain, and it promoted heavily with symbols flagging 3-D and special wrap-around screens. But where its competitors listed the times the movies were playing, it offered “stylish” white space.

This ad said to consumers: “We’ve got all the movies you want to see at a cinema near you in the most modern and fabulously fitted-out environments. But we’re not going to tell you when they’re on. You have to go out of your way to find that out yourself. Download our app.”

So what did I do? I turned the page — and went with their competitor. Because while downloading their app might have been a good idea and allowed me to move across to booking a ticket, it was not possible in full sun and that wasn’t the problem I needed solved. I just wanted to know which cinema I should choose based on knowledge of what time the movie was screening. By not providing me with that information, they prompted me to choose the provider that did. 

And that is telling on lots of levels.

What outraged me was the question of who let that ad run? Who was the ad rep who said, “Sure, I think short-changing your customers is a great plan! It will grow your online traffic.”

In all seriousness, when did our sales skills become so poor that we let a client confuse the value of a retail campaign with the execution of branding marketing? Or is the issue that we really don’t know the difference ourselves or the parts of our newspapers in print or online where the different categories play out the strongest?

What kind of conversation will the ad rep managing this client have at renewal time when the client claims that newspapers are a dead medium because their cinema traffic has gone backward?

Are we so scared today that we might not hit our monthly target that we won’t give clients the value of quality advice, instead blaming long-term decline on new media stealing market share, when in reality it’s poor advice that’s the culprit?

What is the level of understanding in our industry about the value of our products as retail environments versus branding? Or do we just create the content and let the client work that out (the hard way) because it’s not our problem?

Have we become so sycophantic as an industry that we will let our clients try any lame-brained idea, because they’re the ones with the money and, therefore, the power?

While our journalism strives to reveal inequities and stupidities and fight for the underdog, it is possible the real crisis in our industry is the disconnect between that approach to content and the approach of advertising, where sales teams are busy telling emperors their new outfits are fabulous.

Is it any wonder, then, that we are failing to prove our value to the market? Do we even know what that value is ourselves?
After years of cynicism — like most journalists — about the value of motivational texts, I’m now convinced by my studies of the value of leadership inspiration, analysis, and ongoing learning.

As such, I’ve been following the blogs of Robin Sharma, leadership consultant and author of management best-sellers “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” and “The Leader Who Had No Title.” 

Sharma is a big fan of lists, and I’m sure he won’t mind, but I’ve picked the eyes out of several of his blogs to pull out the advice on this issue that I think newspaper companies most need to hear.

  • Take care of your relationships and the money will take care of itself. Understand that relationships are not created by ringing a client and asking if they’d like to book their space again. They are built through respect, quality advice, and robust communication.

  • The purpose of work is to help people. The other rewards are inevitable by products of this singular focus. Remember when journalism used to be about saving the world, not about producing a print edition? Likewise, there were times when the purpose of advertising was not to hit a sales target, but to help business people we knew get results and grow their success. Getting back to helping people will save our industry faster than worrying about saving it.

  • The fears you run from run you. It’s time to stop being frightened and just do what we know has to be done to save our industry and the mastheads we love, regardless of how much we don’t want to do it or think we can avoid it. We cannot. At the moment, being fearful that we are in a dying industry is creating an industry that is dying fearfully.

  • The most dangerous place is in your safety zone. We know this. The times when the rivers of gold flowed through our businesses will be looked upon as the days when newspapers were at their worst for creativity and responsiveness. It was the time of dumbing down of our business skills because it made us complacent and lazy. 

  • The conversations you are most resisting are the conversations you need to be having. There should be a new rule across all our businesses at the moment. The more awkward the call or the meeting feels, the more essential it is that you have it. And it’s absolutely OK to confess that you don’t know the answer when you go into that call, but be open to working it out collaboratively. Being vulnerable opens the gate for creativity.

  • You become your excuses. The behaviour that we are currently claiming is “fair and reasonable” under the circumstances is preventing us from seeing the real solutions.

  • Small, daily, seemingly insignificant improvements and innovations lead to staggering achievements over time. For newspapers, being responsible enough to tell a valued retail client that their attempts at branding are badly executed might just be the one small thing that creates a butterfly effect for the better in our industry.