Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Newspaper Circulation Continues to Drop

Not surprisingly, daily circulation of the top 395 newspapers feel 7.1 percent, according to Audit Bureau of Circulation, which monitors circulation figures for newspapers. Not sure if that 395 includes the late Rocky Mountain News, the online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, which have cut back their midweek production runs.

Both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald lost circulation. I would bet that the Globe will find a big drop this quarter, as a result of the saber rattling by the NY Times Co. that it may close down the Globe. Nothing like announcing troubles at a print property to exacerbate worries among advertisers and subscribers.

That would explain the significant drop in circulation at the Philadelphia Inquirer (-13.8%) which filed for bankruptcy protection or the San Francisco Chronicle (-15.7%), which may shift to online-only mode.

Not sure what explains the drop (-7.5%) at USA Today. Since so many people get USA Today free when traveling, I assume the circ drop is the result of the drop in hotel stays.

Balancing the drop in circ. is the increase in people reading newspaper websites. With all the attention to the fact you can get the same news, faster and free plus have less ink on your hands, it makes sense that people would switch to online versions.

Looks like the Detroit Free Press may be finally living up to its name. As long as it drops the "Press" part of its name.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Problems with Journalism

Virginia Heffernan raises an interesting question in her latest column in the New York Times Magazine: "Reader comments are key part of online journalism. So why do they disappoint?"

I've checked out readers' comments on many sites -- NY Times, WS Journal, Boston Globe, and others -- and most of the time, the comments are often off point, ad hominem attacks on either the author or other readers...In general, there's a school-yard mentality to the responses, which is helpful (apparently) for people who need to vent and rant but not for a general discourse.

That may be the problem.

As search engines allow us to pinpoint the news we want to read because it backs up our world view, we get more upset when we encounter opposing views. And since most mosts are somewhat anonymous, the real service provided by being able to post a response or comment to an article is to be able to let the author know how stupid he or she is. (I try to make reasoned arguments against the columns of political hacks I disagree with, but it amounts to the same thing: I don't expect the columnists to say, Ah yes, Birnbach's right; I'll have to recant in my next column. I've often posted comments when I'm upset with the logic, conclusion the author has made.)

To make readers comments more useful, some posted to Heffernan's article, it might be helpful if the author engaged with his/her readers. Interesting idea -- but judging from most of the comments, who would want to?

So, back to the point of the headline.

A friend said a more important question is why does journalism disappoint.

Here are some preliminary answers:
  • The If-It-Bleeds, It-Leads mindset of local news. Tragedy can be compelling, but judging from local TV broadcasts, one might assume that your community -- it doesn't matter which one, because all local TV news does the same thing -- is suffering from a plague of fires, car crashes, murders, etc. In other words:
  • Good news rarely gets covered. Unless there's good video of an animal being saved.
  • Herd mentality. Few want to be the first or only asking a question & when one brave soul finally asks, the rest pile on.
  • Todd over at Communicating With... says "Controversy sells. But then it gets overplayed and people tend to turn it off. It's cyclical. In that way, journalism disappoints." The latest example: swine flu. The broadcast coverage of the possible pandemic was termed by "The Daily Show" as a "Scare Off" as each network news program teased us with headlines and graphics intended to scare us -- without providing real context or information that could actually help us. (See the segment, below.)
  • Todd also says smaller staffs and fewer pages leads to less depth in the stories that newspapers do cover -- and "that used to be the differentiator. TV news could do a quick story, or multi-segment story, but newspapers were where you went to get the in-depth details. Not so much anymore. Reporters don't have enough time. Instead, they have to hit a story fast and hard and then move on. Often the stories just scratch the surface, leaving the real meat untouched."

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Cost Cutting Won't Save Newspapers, Analyst Says

Quote of the day from the Boston Globe:
Newspapers cannot cost cut themselves to prosperity and an online-only newspaper is not profitable, not even close. We do not have a solution on how to solve the difficulties newspapers face," Craig Huber, Barclays Capital.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Twitter is not like CB Radio

There's been some discussion about whether Twitter is the CB Radio of this decade -- I don't agree, for the following reasons:
  • * CB radio required specific equipment. Twitter can be accessed by a number of different ways, desktop and mobile, dedicated clients and the Internet. You don't need to purchase special equipment to use Twitter.
  • CB radios were used in cars, primarily by truckers and drivers. Twitter can be used anywhere by anyone.
  • CB radio conversations took place in real-time only. Twitter can be real-time but also lets people comment when they want to. You can even schedule tweets to hit at a later time.
  • While CB radio captured society's attention -- spawning top 40 songs, TV shows and movies (Smokey & Bandit) but quickly seemed to have a limit of users. Twitter has quickly captured the media's attention, but the growth of the Twitter userbase seems to be accelerating.
  • CB radio conversations frequently discussed road conditions. Twitter conversations cover business and personal and everything in between.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Change to Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Approach to Editorials

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is making a change in its approach to editorials -- one that could set the standard for local editorial pages. Until now, many editorial pages wrote editorials on national issues as well as local issues.

But the AJC plans to publish fewer editorials, and avoid hot-button ideological issues.

Hot-button issues are what newspapers are supposed to address.

Explaining the move, the AJC's editor, Julia Wallace, told the New York Times' Richard Perez-Pena, "We have moved to a different kind of editorial that’s much more about community issues and less about, ‘let me opine on national issues.’ ”

What's potentially troubling is the fact that the top editors and the publisher are now joining the editorial board. Traditionally, editorial boards have been kept separate from actual news gathering.

The lesson for PR functions is their approach to editorials has to adjust, especially for smaller market newspapers. Make sure you have a strong local angle to an issue. Check out the Times article, "Editorial Voice of an Influential Atlanta Newspaper May Move to the Right."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Newspapers Do, from the Boston Globe

The embattled Boston Globe ran a compelling justification of why we need newspapers, "What newspapers do."

Of course it's self-serving, but it's worth reading.

The fact is we need media outlets who seek to serve the greater good. From my perspective, that's no doubt about that.

I do think that online-only media outlets can provide the same service that newspapers have. I just don't know that we'll be able to get that when news outlets are all online. I think it will be more difficult to pull people together when we're all ready different news items online -- instead of reacting to newspaper headlines while commuting (via mass transit) to the office.

Even if you don't subscribe to newspapers, when you see them on newsstands, at a convenience store, or on a colleague's desk or on the subway, train or bus on the way to work, the headlines do have an impact, and help set an agenda. You can be pro or con to what's being reported, but there's an agenda.

I'm sure something will evolve, but that agenda-setting capability won't be replaced easily by online-only news media.

As more newspapers stopping fighting the inevitable and shift to online-only mode, another way to unite our experience goes by the wayside.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How Much Are Followers Worth?

There is some debate about the worth of followers, friends and subscribers. (Check out: What Are A Million Social-Media Followers, Friends Or Subscribers Worth?.)

I know there are some on Twitter who try to score as many followers as they can, as quickly as they can.

I generally find the content of those people's feed to be uninteresting and unhelpful. I generally don't follow them.

I think quality is more important than quantity.

By quality, I mean people who actually read your posts and people responding to those posts, either engaging in an online conversation with you or by retweeting your comment.

I can tell that more people are clicking on my links in April 2009 than were clicking onto them in Nov. 2008, as my network has grown. Basically, click-through rates have doubled; it's a smallish group, to be sure, but the trend is in the right direction.

I've been letting my network of followers grow organically, letting them find me. I know the argument to jump-start or to accelerate growth: I could start following more people on a daily basis. But I as it is, I can't easily track some of the folks who most interest me. What would I do with thousands more. That's a commitment I'm not ready to make.

Meanwhile, check out "How Many Friends Can You Have?" by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, which addresses the ways people can interact via social networks.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Time Magazine & Lessons of AIG

Time Magazine seems to be following an agenda set by PRBackTalk. After all, Time -- which I may start calling AboutTime -- wrote about the crisis affecting newspapers after we started talking about the crisis here. And Time is looking at AIG and public relations after we first started discussing it here.

Here are two more good articles about AIG to consider:
They may be following our lead, but the articles are worthwhile.

As for PR and AIG, a spokeperson for AIG makes a worthwile point: "He said the outside firms help AIG keep up with the pressing demand for information. 'If we stopped doing what we're doing,'" he said, "'there would be a worse outcry.'"

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Future of Newspapers When They No Longer Print on Paper

We've been recommending that companies (clients and nonclients) consider optimizing their news and information for search engines and Web 2.0. Not all are on board because of some very good reasons:
  • Costs: Concern about needing additional investment in marketing given current conditions. Costs could include professional production of video and audio.
  • Training: Identifying the skill sets required, and making sure staffers have that training.
  • Metrics: Establishing benchmarks that are appropriate and meaningful and help quantify ROI.
Ok, but this post is entitled "The future of newspapers when they no longer print on paper," so what's PR got to do with that?

The answer is that PR has to re-imagine itself to be relevant to our clients and to the people we're trying to reach on behalf of clients. And if newspapers want to charge for their online content, they have to re-imagine themselves, too.

From an eyeballs' perspective, online newspapers are spectacularly successful. More people read newspapers online than read the hardcopy editions of newspapers.

From a financial perspective, of course, this has been the worst year/period ever for newspapers in terms of revenue.

Few people actually pay for online news. So the question that publishers need to be asking themselves is:
  • If we were inventing newspapers today, what would they look like?
  • How would they charge their readers?
  • How would they charge their advertisers?
To answer the first question, newspapers need to embrace Web 2.0 functionality. They need to tag articles. They need to make it easy to link to articles -- on their sites and from other sites. They need to allow us to choose the format of the content we want. Some like to read articles; some prefer to listen to podcasts at the gym and others prefer to watch video. Newspapers must be able to offer all three formats. Perhaps the audio and video could be raw footage from events, conferences, etc.

If invented today, newspapers' online navigation and searchability would be improved. We might have a page with headlines and a 140-character summary of the article -- not just the article's first line -- and if interested, a link to click on to read more.

That leads to an answer for the second question: you could charge readers a monthly package for a certain number of articles they clicked through to read or an unlimited package (borrowing on plans offered by cellphone companies).

I'm not going to address here how to charge advertisers.

But given the plethora of choices of free news services, newspapers trying to achieve profitability through an online-only business model have to do more than just repurpose and post their print mindset to the the Internet.

Unfortunately, too many are not doing the work to invent a news outlet today. And they're doing so for similar reasons some companies are not embracing Web 2.0 for their PR functions.

But the bottom-line is this: If all they do is repurpose the print version, newspapers won't survive online. They must redefine the experience so that readers will be willing to pay. If they don't redefine the reader's experience, newspapers will fail.

There are two interesting articles in today's New York Times:
  • "‘Hyperlocal’ Web Sites Deliver News Without Newspapers": Which looks at a few sites offering news based on your block. That seems like an okay alternative for cities, but probably does not provide a bigger picture of what's going on in the entire city.
  • "Papers Try to Get Out of a Box": by David Carr, who sums up the situation like this: "The taking of one company’s content and selling ads against it for the benefit of another company is simply not fair, no matter what the lawyers stipulate. But even though this is not the world newspapers might have chosen, it is the one that they live in. Deprived of links — the oxygen of the Internet — many news providers would wither away."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

AIG's PR Crisis: Four Agencies Still Not Making Headway

I know that most blogs and people I talk to on Twitter have written off AIG and its ability to salvage its image.

I wrote Five PR Steps AIG Should Take anyway because the company is not going away yet. I've witnessed two firms -- a small family business and a mid-size law firm -- as they tried to wind down business, and it took years for it to happen. And compared to AIG, they were relatively simple businesses.

Since AIG is going to be around in one form or another, I believe its management will need to engage a PR firm to help it communicate to Congress and taxpayers as well as the usual stakeholders.

Turns out, according to a article, Dizzying PR binge, AIG has hired four PR agencies:
  • Kekst & Company, handling its asset sales
  • Sard Verbinnen, handling IR
  • Hill & Knowlton, focusing on inside the Beltway
  • Burson-Marsteller, focusing on inside the Beltway
I assume H&K and B-M are focusing on lobbying, but they probably need to do more in communicating with the rest of us.

So, like it or not, AIG is working to improve its image. For more on some of what AIG's PR machine is doing, check out TalkingPointsMemo's AIG's PR Blitz.

It will be interesting to see how effective they are.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tough Times for Alternative Weeklies: What happens to them when the traditional papers cease publishing?

While most of the attention to the problems of print journalism have focused on daily newspapers, things have not been going so well for alternative weeklies.

Check out the Boston Globe's: "The weekly battle: Alternative papers, like big dailies, cut back as ad sales slip."

Here's the thing: what happens to alternative papers when the papers they serve as an alternative to cease publishing?

It means alternative papers need to find a new alternative. They're going to have to shift online, which raises a question: who are they serving as an alternative too? The vast majority of blogs could be classified as alternative, I'd think.

So once they're online-only, these outlets will need to redefine their approach, their goals, and their alternative-ness.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

NY Times Offers PR Advice to Bank of America

The New York Times published a special "DealBook" section that included an unexpected article: "How to Win the Spin the Win Game: Some Advice for Ken Lewis." Written by Paul Pendergrass, a PR pro, the article lists more than five things Lewis ought to do -- compared to the five actions we suggested for AIG -- but they're pretty good, including:
  • Anticipate
  • Give 'em a reason to care
  • Give 'em a reason to believe
  • Go human
Check it out.

As for editors at the NY Times giving free PR advice, I guess turn-about is fair play. After all, this blog often gives advice to newspapers on how to run their business.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Newsrrom Cuts Not Enough to Spare Boston Globe

Last week the Globe announced that it had completed its newsroom cuts, the equivalent of 50 full-time jobs.

This week, the New York Times Co. met with the local unions to request concessions. Check out Times Co. threatens to shut Globe; seeks $20m in cuts from unions.

Turns out, instead of losing $1M per week, the Globe has been losing $1.6M per week or $85M annually.

As a current and longtime subscriber, I'm not sure I see where that money has been going. The paper is thin, with four standalone sections in the daily paper: Front/national section, Metro (which includes business), Sports and g (which includes comics, arts, health and whatever else doesn't fit in the front, metro or sports. The business section -- well, at first, I wrote "business page," though technically it usually has about 2 1/2 pages -- has a couple of reporters. Same for the health, which no longer has its own section.

The challenge for the Globe, the dominant paper in New England, by circulation, is that its web site is not great. To compete as an online-only site, it would have to improve the search engine capability on the site, improve navigation, add multimedia -- in other words, it will take some investment to make it successful online.

That's probably true, too, for the Seattle P-I and other papers making the shift.

They all have to reinvent themselves as an online outlet.

As for the print Globe itself, NY Times management is asking the union to make concessions. Given unemployment figures and lack of alternatives, I think they'll have to work with management to save the Globe and their jobs.

But I actually read a quote from a journalism professor that said, in part, "The newspaper is telling the unions that radical changes have to be made or the newspaper is no longer viable. The question is whether it's a negotiating ploy."

I'd say, given the current market, the steps the Times Co. has taken to raise money, that that person was not paying attention. (He added, "In this situation, the request on the part of the management is not unusual or out of the ordinary" but I think we're beyond "negotiating ploys.")

Good luck, Boston Globe.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Media Predictions & the Speed of Change + One Prediction We Did Not Get Completely Right. Ok, More than Not Right

In my interview with Wayne Hurlbert of Blog Business Success Radio, which airs -- ok, which runs -- on BlogTalkRadio, we talked a lot about media predictions and trends, based on my original blog post, Top 14+ Media Trends for 2009, posted Jan. 9, 2009. The predictions are an annual list that my agency, Birnbach Communications, compiles based on research, conversations with reporters, bloggers and Twitter members to find out what they're following. For nearly a decade, we've compiled the annual list of media trends to help clients more effectively work with the medi, both at traditional and online outlets, including blogs and other social media sites.

Anyway, since Jan. 9, we've been right about a number of the predictions. But what was startling was the pace of change regarding some of our predictions.

For example, we expected some second-tier newspapers would fold or shift to online-only mode. And we were right about that. But we really did not expect the closing of the Rocky Mountain News. And though we should have realized because the announcements were there, that primary papers in other top markets were in trouble, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which is now online-only mode, and the San Francisco Chronicle, which will likely go online-only.

In fact, it's been difficult to keep pace and track with the number of first-tier and second-tier newspapers changes and layoffs. Since Jan., the pace of that change has accelerated beyond our expectations. We updated a media list yesterday that had last had its major update in Dec. 2008 -- and there were so many more changes than I've ever seen in three months, much less a year. Included were reporters who had been active journalists for decades.

So that's one prediction we did not get entirely right. We were hopeful more could survive, especially newspapers that were dominent in their markets. So we're revising our prediction to say that here will a lot of smaller and some larger markets without a major traditional paper.

One prediction we did not get right was the strength of hyperlocal reporting. While we still feel that hyperlocal coverage can be a solution, we now realize hyperlocal media is not immune to the cash flow and lack of advertising problems plaquing newspaper holding companies. Recently, the Journal Register sold two Connecticut dailies and closed several weeklies.

Please note: they closed them not because there wasn't local interest in hyperlocal news. There is. Just as there was readers support for the Rocky or the Seattle PI.

But that's not enough.

As I've noted before, circulation fees alone do not spare publications because advertising generates much more revenue. If advertising drops, even a circulation in the hundreds of thousands won't save the publicaiton. That's true for newspapers, like the Rocky or the Seattle PI, or consumer magazines, where glossies with 800,000 subscribers still closed.

However, to our credit, we did predict that local competition in the online space will heat up, and that still seems like it will be proven true.

Anyway, check out my interview on Blog Business Success Radio. And thanks for continuing to read this blog.