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Sunday, November 18, 2012


Johannes Gutenberg [1398-1468] is credited with being on of the first Europeans to use movable type printing circa 1439

ONE NICHE AT A TIME--Last week, I was presented a San Diego Press Club award for top magazine reporting in the field of architecture and design. It was a nice rose that I shared with colleagues, family and friends.  But, as expected conversations at this annual gathering of this town’s paid communicators focused on what many perceive as an industry in its death throes.

Is Journalism dead?  Are members of the fourth estate dinosaurs?

Before re-entering the discussion here, we should understand journalism’s face is often the TV talking heads or the penning pundits.   Few focus on the fact every newspaper, magazine, broadcast venue is a business first.   Journalism is not immune from economic dilemmas.  The first amendment doesn’t protect journalism from poor business practices.

Capitalistic economies ebb and flow.  Every industry at one time or another will run into tough times.   Those who print news for a living, for example, have hit a huge wall.  That wall is the Internet.  Internet can deliver the news faster than the printing press and even most the quickest broadcast venues.

The journalistic print and 11 o’clock news enterprises that will survive from today into the future will be those that are run as successful businesses first.  Like all capitalistic ventures, the well run, well managed companies will succeed.   Hire good people and pay them well…then pray.

Today’s newspaper publishers are no different than railroad magnates at the dawn of the 20th century, who had to cope with the growth of the automobile industry.    The car soon became the transportation leader of choice.   Trains were no longer the big dog in public transportation.

Passenger rail had to change with progress.  They adapted by creating subways and streetcar systems and to focus on being the nation’s freight carrier, a leadership position it still maintains.

Newsgathering is undergoing revolutionary times.   The Internet is still the ocean facing Christopher Columbus before his first voyage.   Many feel today’s remarkable advances in electronic newsgathering and delivery modes are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A bigger boom is yet to come.

Print journalism too must continue to adapt to new times and they must do it quickly and with creative vigor.

Newsweek, Time and other periodicals are among the best ever published, but like the luxury passenger train their day as a profitable venture has left the station.

Those who remain committed to old ways will be blown a side by the creative winds of new technologies that have forged better avenues (social media e.g.) as to how news is being delivered.

Also, don’t confuse delivering the news with quality of news.  Being a good journal is no longer good enough.

Case in point: In 2013, the aforementioned Newsweek, a weekly news publication (founded in the 1930s) will no longer print for newsstands.  Instead it will be found online only.

Many believe Newsweek’s decision is too late.   The newsstand version of US World & News Report also died earlier in the new millennium but resurrected itself online.  Unfortunately, USN&WR on the ‘net is a ghost of its former journalistic self.

Publications moving from newsstands to print are doomed to failure if they stick to delivering day old bread as news. Everyone that can access a blog is suddenly in the news business.  At one time, there were hundreds of carmakers after 1900—within a decade only those that had solid business plans survived.

Today, thousands of news outlets via the Internet have tugged readers away from traditional publications.   Some blogs are damned good.

But, like print cousins, there are other factors in play dooming online journals as well.  

Competition isn’t the sole grim reaper. 

People that run companies like Newsweek aren’t blind to the Internet.  They must know no matter how many MBAs line the boardroom the real challenge in online news delivery for profit is the fact no one in WWW journalism has found the golden goose when it comes to making money using the Internet for media purposes.

E-Bay knows how to make money.  

So does Amazon.   Google and facebook are generating big dollars from the WWW.

Because there are so many Internet news outlets vying for advertising dollars no one is able to corner a profitable niche.  Once the media learns how to “consistently” sell advertising on the Internet, then will we see a rebound in quality news journalism.

So far, most publications are willing to sit on the sidelines (and slowly die) until someone else comes up with the magic formula.

And, so far, no such luck.  Those advertising agencies saying Internet advertising is a hot commodity are whistling in the proverbial darkness.

Fortunately for purveyors of the printed word, the general reading public hasn’t totally accepted Internet advertising in the same way they view printed ads.  That’s why there are still so many magazines on every newsstand.

Reason is simple, those magazines like USN&WR and soon Newsweek were/are general interest “news” based publications.  Savvy non-news magazines, for example, are surviving today because they are not delivering “breaking news.”

Niche publications like America’s many home and garden publications are winning ad dollars on the net by embracing a mix of print and electronic delivery systems.  Plus, they have a narrow scope.  They’re not trying to be the swiftest or the fastest.  They’ve found a niche and marketed the hell out of it.

Bottom line: all breaking news print journals must diversify—yesterday.  They need to be more timeless by focusing on feature journalism and in-depth analysis as a print publication.  Print is part of the successful formula.  For breaking news, the Newsweeks of the world must depend on blogs, facebook and twitter to deliver general news.”

Journalism must serve its audience.  Mass audiences don’t need newspapers or magazines to get the news instantly.

Then what must they do to remain in business?

They must find a niche that the public has actual interest in.  All print news media must return to the basics. 

Report the news. 

Do not become the news. 

Do not interject newspaper bias into the news (avoid being a political cheerleader). 

Embrace the second day story.  Embrace in-depth reporting. If news is to be manufactured (top ten lists) then make sure it is important to the community.

Advertising must be reasonably priced.

Make pricing simple.  Don’t charge customers for creating ads.  Become a partner with your advertiser.  Use publishing experience to assist the advertiser to best present “products.”

Rediscover the small businessperson, who can only afford smaller ads.  Don’t ignore them because it is easier to chase the bigger fish.

Simplify the process for the advertiser.  Make rate cards understandable.  Eliminate frequency-advertising breaks—no one believes them anyway.  Give your advertiser the best price and stick to it: no used car dealer shenanigans on pricing.

Be creative in every aspect of publishing.  Innovate.

Dazzle the audience for a change.  And, maybe then you’ll survive until the end of the decade.

And understand that the death knell for one is not a non-survivable plague for an entire industry.
Thomas Shess is an independent media consultant based on the West Coast.  His media experience includes being editor in chief of inflight, city and shelter magazine as well as being a principal in his own public relations/marketing firm.
He can be found on facebook.
Image: Replica of the Gutenberg press, circa 1439.  Wikipedia.

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