Thursday, February 25, 2010

Helping newspapers find their souls.

This column first appeared in Newspapers & Technology in June of 2008.

“Teach me, like you, to drink creation whole. And casting out, myself, become a soul.” — Richard Wilbur, 1961.

I think the biggest threat to the newspaper industry today resides in the possibility that, in many communities, the local paper is in grave danger of losing its soul.

As we have standardized process, and streamlined technique, and adopted best practices, we have somehow lost sight of what it means to be a unique voice helping communities to become individual, exceptional, distinctive and one of a kind.

And that is part of our job.

For local newspapers, it is crucial that they encourage their communities’ rare elements to survive and to help the matchless aspects of their neighborhoods to thrive and prosper.

None of us really wants to live in the town down the road.

None of us wants to pick up a paper in that distant town and say to himself, “This is exactly the same paper I read this morning in my own town.”

We can’t afford to become fast food. Even the idea of a concept restaurant is out. We won’t survive — long term — in any other role other than as an individual provider with a strong menu of local color and flavor.

We need to produce an extraordinary, singular experience as we serve our readers, sources, advertisers and ourselves.

If we are not able to create such an experience, we are doomed. Readers and others will find it elsewhere, the Internet being only one option.

Yet how do we offer such a singular experience? How do we continue to nurture that soul? How do we build on years of doing just that?

I think the answer might be found in the same manner as the local, and not chain-owned, restaurant. Soul comes from the people who work there and the community itself.

It lives in the kitchen, with a chef that won’t compromise on ingredients. It comes from the wait staff that cares about how customers are treated, or even the dishwasher who takes pride in how even the mundane tasks are performed.

Soul also survives and grows in the customers — the regular who eats there every night and the “special occasion” diner that could think of no other place as appropriate for such a celebration.

It is in the music that is played, and the sights, and sounds and smells. There is soul in the beer that is served, and in the tall, cool glass in which it magically appears.

Keeping it intact

That soul is, of course, in the capable hands of the responsible owner who knows and worries that all of it — everything — can disappear if careful attention is not paid.

For newspapers, the first step in keeping their souls intact is to recognize they’re in danger of losing them. Then reach for that individual experience with local texture, color and flavor.

As novelist, poet and short-story writer Charles Bukowski once observed, “If you are losing your soul and know it, then you’ve still got a soul left to lose.”

Now is the time to try to save what we can.


How to keep public notices in the newspaper.

The following column was written for Newspapers & Technology and appeared in July, 2007 edition.

One of the perennial concerns of many small newspapers rests in the business of publishing public notices.

It is a very old business in the United States, but one that no one is sure will survive in its current form. State and local governments for years have threatened to “roll their own” Web sites in a move that some government officials contend would still satisfy the original intent of the practice of using public notices to notify the public at large.

The long-held practice of requiring disclosure of government activity is at least as old as the government itself.

Public notice laws have been a part of government structure since the first session of the first U.S. Congress, writes Shannon E. Martin, a professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.

“In 1789 the new congress declared that all legislative actions and executive decisions would be published in at least three public newspapers so that all citizens would know what government was doing,” he said.

Here in Colorado, the notice laws, which are more than 100 years old, prescribe specific rules that govern which newspapers even fit the criteria to enable them to become a “legal” newspaper.

Many other states’ requirements are similarly stringent. But newspaper trade organizations and press associations battle changes to the law on a continuous basis.

As National Newspaper Association Public Policy Director Tonda Rush wrote earlier this year, a company called GlobalNotice Inc. spurred legislation and proposals in at least a dozen states to migrate their public notices from local newspapers to an online site.

“The company proposes what would essentially be an online franchise for public notices,” Rush wrote. “It has floated ideas in various states for funding a national Web site that would aggregate notices, quoting process as low as $10 per notice. It suggests in some places sharing the revenue for the notices with public bodies, such as court clerks,” Rush wrote in Publishers Auxiliary, the NNA’s newspaper.

Delaware-based GlobalNotice argues that it is an efficient alternative to the old way of doing things.

“It is difficult to describe the present system of notice as anything but inefficient, fragmented, and unfair to most potentially interested members of the public,” the company says on its Web site. “The current legal requirements and methodology governing legal public notice have not changed since the 17th century and are painfully outdated.”

Lack of credibility?

Critics of the company say that plans to share revenue with government entities indicate a lack of independence needed to insure credibility.

The relative unstableness of the Internet is also mentioned as a serious flaw in the company’s plan.

But part of the responsibility for improving public notice effectiveness rests with newspapers. Too many of us take both the business and the responsibility for granted. We print the notices in barely readable type and stuff them into out-of-the-way corners of the publication.

Many businesses and lawyers intentionally search out and use obscure but “legal” publications in the hope that very few readers will actually spot such notices. Many public trustees, clerks and other officials follow the letter of the laws, without giving a thought to the spirit.

The laws were put in place to provide an independent method of keeping abreast of what government is doing.

The Public Notice Resource Center, an organization founded in 2003 and supported by various government organizations and press associations, offers these and other best-practices guidelines for publishing notices correctly:

•Governments should make public notices understandable, and not use arcane and confusing language.

•Governments should ensure that the public is involved in all decisions affecting their daily lives. Notice should be published whenever a decision or debate will affect the populace. By keeping the citizens informed, the government will better represent the needs of the people.

•Newspapers should strive to be experts in public notices. By mastering the process of publishing a notice, a newspaper can cement itself in the community as the place to go for public notices. And they should explain to readers the importance of public notices and the newspaper’s role in publishing them.

•Newspapers should highlight the public notice section of their Web sites when they post the printed notice to the sites. Public notices should be set apart from other sections so that they are easily found and viewed.


"Life is easier, if you don't speak up."

Uncle Gray, an advertising agency based in Denmark, created a series of print ads featuring famous political personalities such as Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, to promote Morgenavisen -- the newspaper that earlier sparked world-wide protest over cartoons depicting Muhammad controversially.
The tag-line on this campaign:
"Life is easier, if you don't speak up."

What about the amendments this year?

Last year, 2009, thanks to previous legislation, only fiscal issues were eligible to appear and no measures were offered. We missed them very much.

This year, three citizen’s initiatives and one referendum are already approved and will appear. At least two more are likely.

But we won't know too much more until after July 12, the last day for signatures.

By August 11, the signatures will be certified.

The three propositions that are certified, are also already numbered.

The amendments (proposals and referendums) will run in the largest circulation legal paper in each county, as it has for the last several years.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

We think it is time to customize.

Respected media business analyst Borrell Associates, Inc. forecasted earlier this month that political advertising will reach new heights nationally this year at $4.2 billion. The bulk of that, nearly 75%, is expected to be local and centered on issues rather than candidates.

"January's Supreme Court ruling put a 10 percent lift in our 2010 forecast adding more than $400 million to media coffers. The decision prohibits the government from banning political spending by corporations. In many ways this year will be a prelude, where political weapons are tested and strategies and tactics are refined – a training exercise for 2012's battle royale. If the results from the opening salvos are any indicator, 2010 will be remembered as a year of change in the basic structure of political campaigns," From the executive summary of "The Endless Campaign," Borrell Associates, Inc. released in early February.

Political Advertising guru John Kimball (former NAA chief marketing officer), identifies 5 key elements to success in newspapers getting their fair share of this expected expenditure.

1. Understand the political ad market.
2. Take on the competition.
3. Communicate newspapers unique selling propositions.
4. Give political consultants and candidates what they wont.
5. Find the buyers.

We tried to keep all these elements in mind when designing our program for 2010.

Based initially on previous political seasons.

In 2008, CPS created extensive political packaging options. Those packages did not sell.
Instead, what happened was, we were asked to create customized packages.

In talking with clients including, candidates, public relations firms, agencies, political consultants, and other press associations… We were told that the trend is increasing going that direction, toward more customized quotes.
They want to reach more precise targets and they are looking for looking for more precise options.

As a result we came to the conclusion that
OUR STRENGTH (as a placement agency)
Namely, all the different papers in the state, their understanding of their own markets and the advertising apparatus set up by each for those markets.

As Colorado Press Service, we have:
• Prime access to nearly 150 CPA member papers, and roughly that many again, that are not part of the membership (including monthlies, bi-monthlies, specialty products, etc…)
• Extensive everyday working knowledge of deadlines, contacts, formats, mechanical information, publication cycle and other requirements.
• The one bill, one check, one call advantage.
• The ability to save time and money by that familiarity.
• An existing relationship with those papers.

By focusing on the paper’s differences, we focus on the strength of the industry.
One size does not fit all. And that is represented in our membership.
A membership which includes large dailies of with circulation of 500,000, small weeklies with less than 500 circulation, and everything in between. But what is special about all of them is that they uniquely connected to their own communities, each serving their distinctive markets.
Each paper to survive, long-term must offer the best way to reach that community.
That means:
• Hyper LOCAL news.
• LOCAL community involvement.
• Localized information.
• Responsiveness to regional differences.

Modern marketing is it based on the 3 Ds. Is what are marketing:

• Desirable? (Does the customer want what we are selling?)
• Distinctive? (Is it different enough from everything else being sold to stand out?)
• Deliverable? (Can we make good on our promise?)

So going back to our previous experience where were asked to created extensive customized options.
How best to position ourselves to customize?

We concluded:
Quick, Easy, Clear access to All Those Differences.

Starting in October, we sent out surveys to every paper asking them to
1. Identify what rate we should use to sell political ads during the 2010 political season.
2. What online options were available?
3. Color costs
4. Commission available to us to sell your individual papers.

With that info, we loaded into our database, we ran through multiple scenarios or “starting place” type quotes (like the top 10 dailies in the state, or the largest legal newspapers in each county, etc…, and tried to continue to distill that info down to quick, easy to use information.

I think it is working out already.
For example, I closed yesterday on a quote placing ‘page killers’ in 9 papers that was turned in one day in the afternoon, answered the next morning, tweaked for that afternoon with new options. The client, a political consultant, targeted papers in house districts for certain state legislators that were ‘on the fence’ on a bill regarding rafting on Colorado rivers.
We have seen other similarly targeted placements already.

Additionally, in an effort to find the buyers, give political consultants and candidates what they want, and to communicate newspapers unique selling propositions we have established a target list and have already started pitching the unique opportunity newspapers offer to reach voters in periodic emails, followup contacts.

The key, I think, is get them involved in the conversation, respond to their suggestions, and find products that fit. With so many offerings and unique ways of reaching Colorado communities through Colorado newspapers, and with papers ability to deliver voters, there is no reason not to buy.