Unless you just came out from under a rock, you have heard that the traditional news media are in a state of dramatic decline. Print newspapers, in particular, are in an economic free fall as advertising dollars stampede toward new forms of electronic and Internet-based media.
Print is dead, or at least on its death bed. And the people who are sharing all this bad news are the very journalists who used to make their living on the back of every bad piece of news imaginable — from weather to crime to international politics. Now the scribes in their last hurrah get to write about another impending disaster, the death of their own medium.
Given all the doom and gloom about print newspapers, it’s refreshing to stumble across some industry analysis that is tempered with both statistical research and anecdotal evidence. Penelope Abernathy, author of “Saving Community Journalism — the Path to Profitability,” brings the experience of a well rounded career to the discussion. From her first job in the summer of 1969, when she was fresh out of high school and was hired as a reporting intern for her hometown newspaper, the Laurinburg, North Carolina, Exchange, Abernathy rose to writing and editing positions at bigger daily newspapers, including the Charlotte Observer, the Greensboro News & Record, and the Dallas Times-Herald.
Later she received a mid-career fellowship to earn both a master’s in journalism and an MBA from Columbia. At that point she crossed the aisle to the business side of journalism, serving as a senior executive at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the Harvard Business Review. She also served as executive director of industry programs at the Paley Center for Media in New York.
At a time when many journalists — and their readers — are highly concerned about the business side of journalism, Abernathy takes a pragmatic view. Pointing out that the loyalty of newspaper readers is far greater than that of online visitors, Abernathy says that “advertiser research indicates that there is a foundation on which newspapers can build during this time of disruption in the marketplace, as they seek to navigate from a print-only focus to a multi-platform one.”
She continues: “With the dynamics changing dramatically, publishers need to act decisively to counter mistaken impressions in the marketplace and reposition the community newspaper as a 21st century medium. The requires reframing the ‘story’ about the value of advertising in a cross-platform ‘newspaper’ and then totally retooling the newspaper’s sales operation to strategically pursue new revenue opportunities.”
Abernathy will deliver the keynote speech at the New Jersey Press Association’s annual membership luncheon on Friday, November 14, from noon to 2 p.m., at Forsgate Country Club. Cost for members is $55. For membership information contact Peggy Stephan Arbitell at 609-406-0600, ext. 14, or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Registration deadline is Friday, November 7, at noon.
Another relatively good piece of news Abernathy delivers to beleaguered newspaper owners (and their loyal readers) is that the zero-sum game that prevailed for advertising in the 20th century may no longer apply in the 21st. The “Principle of Relative Constancy,” as some called it, was based on the fact that “the amount of advertising dollars spent on media in the 20th century seemed to have remained a ‘relatively constant’ 2 percent” of the gross domestic product. When a new media technology emerged — to cut into the pie (think of radio and television in the early part of the century and the Internet later on), the revenue declined for the existing media.
But things may be changing. Abernathy reports that “initial research calculates that the amount of advertising money spent on media in the 21st century is more than double the 2 percent assumed in the 20th century. And, even more important, it is growing, especially among ‘nontraditional’ forms of advertising and marketing.”
Newspapers may have “a path to renewal — provided they embrace the notion that their community newspapers are cross-platform mediums and take an expansive view of additional content and experiences newspapers can offer both readers and advertisers.”
The “seed” of her book came at that summer job in 1969, when she saw first hand how good journalism worked at the most basic level of a community. Abernathy, whose mother was a seventh grade teacher and father was a manager for the region’s natural gas company, took notice of how her hometown editor, John Henry Moore, interacted with his community, right down to his routine of visiting the local cafe every morning to get the pulse of the community and enough news tips to keep his staff of three reporters busy.
Her first editor made a lasting impression with his belief that “strong community needs a strong newspaper to prosper.” Abernathy remembers him challenging “the community with every editorial means at his disposal — including his own signed column that ran down the left side of the front page, as well as the editorials he banged out on an old Royal typewriter.”
When Abernathy returned to North Carolina in 2008, the Laurinburg Exchange had been sold by the family to an out-of-state corporation. The county the paper served had been threatened by a New York firm hoping to establish a “mega-dump” adjacent to state game lands. “That effort was halted,” Abernathy writes, “not by the paper, which often ran almost-verbatim press releases put out by the company, but by a group of vigilant local citizens and state officials who fought hard to break through the noise and misinformation” put out by company lobbyists. The paper had ceded its prominent place in the community.
Abernathy’s book draws on market and reader research conducted over the previous four years by five professors and some 200 graduate students and upperclassmen at the University of North Carolina’s journalism school. It also is based on case studies of 11 community newspapers as they struggled to coordinate their print publications with their emerging digital presence.
The consensus that emerges from all these sources is that simply “going digital” is no silver bullet that will save community journalism. Seeking to maximize page views and clicks is probably not a good strategy for most community newspapers. “Many small online newspaper websites currently do not draw enough visitors to merit any significant advertiser investment,” Abernathy writes, and then adds a qualifier that publishers might want to underscore in red, “unless the website is paired with the print edition.”
In this way a newspaper’s legacy business can give it a leg up in the online world. What’s more, the research that Abernathy and her students did showed that readers who consumed their news in both the print edition and the online version of a newspaper were the most loyal readers. Those who got their news only from the digital edition were the least loyal.
The book also has a complementary website, www.savingcommunityjournalism.com, that offers video and print interviews with opportunities for readers to post comments and exchange ideas. You can imagine that in the not too distant future the purchase of a hard copy book will also get you access to an interactive website such as Abernathy’s.
But, even though the savingcommunityjournalism site is free, the site does not appear to be highly trafficked. Abernathy warns that you should not ignore the rise of online media. “If you just look at what makes money right now, it’s print,” she says. “But if you look at consumer behavior, it’s shifting from print to online.” Readers, she says, “are already comfortable toggling between print and online.” But, she adds, “it takes time for advertisers to shift.”
Smart publishers, she says, should start now to help advertisers make the transition.