Friday, March 26, 2010

The future of newspapers gets debated locally in two forums ... with decidely different outcomes

What a difference a day makes.

I attended a joint meeting of the Albany chapter of the American Marketing Association and the Albany Ad Club on Thursday, and the first day of a New York State Press Association conference today in Saratoga. At both functions newspapers were under a microscope. The first gathering was disconcerting and chaogenous; the second included a keynote address that was much more insightful and competently presented.

The topic of the AMA/Ad Club meeting – held ironically within walking distance of the Times Union Building - was “Are Newspapers Dead?” I didn’t catch the title of the press convention keynote today but the premise was how community newspapers are poised to thrive in the new media order.

Let’s take the “Are Newspapers Dead?” discussion first. It was billed to be a “roundtable” discussion but was neither figuratively (there was no “round table”) or literally (only two people presenting and there was little back-and-forth dialogue between them). It was also reported to be a “sell out” (a dubious distinction because several attending commented there were easily room for 35-40 more people in the room) and a breakfast (again questionable because the only food served was convenience store-quality danish). But I digress. The most suspicious part of the gathering was the agenda itself, which included participation by exactly zero people representing the daily newspaper industry (again, remember the T.U. is a brisk couple minutes walk away) and a seminar title I am absolutely certain the same organizers would never use to broach the future of local TV or radio (or any other business their members represented).

Mike Danieli, representing the New York State Press Association – a group of mostly free and paid weekly newspapers and a former T.U. executive – spoke first. He adequately represented the outlook of his current employer, which is that weekly newspapers have grown both in number and in audience in the last decade throughout New York. He sufficiently delineated why that segment of the print media has grown, because of the insatiable interest of consumers in hyper-local content.

If it is accurate to say Danelli was representing the ”newspapers remain viable” side of the conversation, albeit with only a little insight into why, a second presenter, Ron Ladoceur, executive vice president/executive creative director at Media Logic, represented the opposite thesis. Except that he wasn’t a terrible willing participant – saying on one hand that he still encouraged buyers at his firm to use local print, while on the other meekly suggesting through anecdotes and observations that maybe newspapers’ time had passed.

Missing in both men’s discourse were the fundamental reasons for both the negative headlines about newspapers today (corporate debt, the loss of multiple titles in almost all metro markets, and the erosion of seven-day subscriptions to weekend or Sunday home delivery offers are just three), newspapers’ audience growth in recent years (through Web and mobile offerings, among others), or the myriad of steps many newspapers have taken to improve their fate (shedding legacy costs and partnering with competitors and companies outside the industry, to name just two).

The 90-minute AMA/Ad Club presentation wasn’t informative but it was good drama. Several of the dozen or so Times Union staffers attending loudly expressed their angst at Ladoceur’s remarks, a woman from a weekly newspaper contributed comments that were off topic several times, and many from outside print media seemed to be confounded, embarrassed and, or amused by the whole affair. Neither Ladoceur or Danieli should have been the target of any angst; that belonged to the organizers. As someone who sat on the board of an Ad Club in another market for six years - and as attendee/presenter/organizer at dozens of other trade functions - I feel qualified to say this was something of a public train wreck.

By contrast, it was a Web guy – Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO Randall Rothenberg – who almost gushed about the future of local newspapers at the NYPA conference in Saratoga Springs. During a half hour talk, he drew upon a range of data from ComScore, MORI Research, Borrell Associates and others to outline why newspapers are poised for a resurgence in the coming years if they embrace new technologies and adapt to new social realities.

Rothenberg cited strong brands, consumer trust, terrific knowledge of and access to local advertisers, and an abundance of sought-after local content as assets that positioned newspapers for success. And he demonstrated how as direct mail, radio and telephone directories lose local market share of ad dollars in coming years, newspapers were poised to gain share through interactive advertising because of their strength in selling to businesses in the categories that are most embracing Web and mobile advertising such as retail stores, financial services, telecoms and others.

The IAB chief set aside projections and statistics and talked about the vital role newspapers serve as he neared the conclusion to his speech. He described how merchants rely on newspapers to drive foot traffic, how readers count on newspapers to inform, and how consumers use newspapers more than any other source to make local buying decisions. “Speaking as someone who runs an online trade association,” he said, “nothing exists in my town without the things newspapers do”.

It wasn’t that the IAB chief sided with my point of view on my industry’s outlook that made his presentation better than the one the day before. It was because Rothenberg – like a good opinion editor – had done his homework and composed and articulated an intelligent viewpoint.

For more on the NYPA convention, click here.

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