People still buy newspapers, the same as they still buy printed books and still send paper checks to the phone company. And people still care about the news, says Tony Casale, a longtime newspaper journalist and CEO of American Opinion Research (AOR) at 275 Wall Street in Research Park.

What has changed is what people buy newspapers for. “They’re not buying newspapers for world and national news anymore,” Casale says. “They’re buying for local news.” And that would be great if newspaper publishers understood how to promote.

Casale will present “Where the Eyeballs Are: Rethinking News Content in the Digital Age” at the NJ Press Association on Friday, November 11, at noon at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Monroe. Cost: $49. Call 609-406-0600, ext. 14, or E-mail pastephan@njpa.org.

Casale’s conclusions on how newspapers can compete in the digital world are based on his career as a reporter and editor as much as they are based on AOR’s research. Casale, the son of a policeman, was born and raised in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, (home of the Little League World Series) and “never went back.” He got his first job as a reporter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before moving onto a reporter’s job in Rochester, New York.

In Rochester he eventually became the news department manager for the Times-Union. In 1982 he got a call from a group of newspaper entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C., who wanted him to help them launch a national newspaper called USA Today. Seven months after he arrived Casale was USA Today’s first national editor.

“It was a year of seven days a week, 15, 16 hours a day,” Casale says. And all without his family, which was still in Rochester waiting to find out whether the experiment in a general interest national newspaper would pay off. It did in 1982, of course, but Casale says USA Today would never get off the ground today. “The media environment is too fragmented these days. It was the right place at the right time.”

Casale worked nights, overseeing the final touches on each edition, so that he could get his MBA in research from George Washington University during the day. When he got it he became the director of research for USA Today, and then took the same position at Gannett Inc.

In 1992 Casale was transferred to Manhattan, where Gannett was looking to do a joint venture with Inc. Magazine.

Instead, he heard of an opportunity at a small company called Integrated Marketing Services, whose research arm is American Opinion Research.

AOR is now a multinational specializing in researching media, education, and healthcare issues. It also conducts research for major corporations such as Coca-Cola, AGFA, and Berlitz.

As part of its media research, AOR annually polls 2,000 newspaper executives and thousands of media consumers. Lately the answers are pointing definitively toward the digital environment.

#b#What it is, what it was#/b#. “Newspapers are great at telling us what happened yesterday,” Casale says. And that used to be just fine, when people had no other way of knowing how the ball game ended or who won the mayoral election.

But thanks to the Internet, people know what’s happening everywhere, as it happens. Consider, for example, the Twitter effect in Iran last year. With news outlets barred from disseminating information conventionally, activists, protesters, and journalists with smartphones typed live updates into Twitter to give the world real-time reporting.

What this means for news outlets, Casale says, is that they can’t just tell us what was. They need to tell us what is and what it’s about to be. “Let’s talk about what’s happening today and tomorrow,” he says.

One way to do that is to provide complementary products online and in print. “You can’t just put the newspaper online,” he says. What should go in the print edition is “good old-fashioned journalism,” such as enterprise reporting, analysis, and investigative journalism.

A newspaper’s online component should feature helpful (and, preferably, interactive) items that do not work in print. One of AOR’s media clients, for example, is the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Palm Beach, Florida. The paper’s online visitors can type in the name of a restaurant and get the health department’s report on it. Other client papers compile databases of crime statistics — you put in a ZIP code and it will give you the crimes reported there.

#b#Editors: Edit!#/b# Based on thousands of phone interviews with media consumers, AOR has found that newspaper readers want more heft in their printed news. They want editors to remove minutiae and pre-packaged items in favor of more localized content.

The Poynter Institute, one of journalism’s largest trade organizations, stated in 2009 that a mere 20 percent of all newly generated information comes from original reporting. That includes the Internet, which aggregates, condenses, and re-packages immense amounts of media every day. “We’ve found that when people talk about the death of newspapers,” Casale says, “they’re really talking about the death of original reporting.”

#b#Oh yeah, money. #/b#It has been 10 years since newspaper companies first felt the true financial sting of CraigsList, which helped decimate classified advertising revenue. And newspapers are still trying to find ways to make the money back.

The original idea to put news content online for free and try to sell virtual advertising space around it did not work. Nor did charging for content. But, Casale says, news outlets are revisiting the idea of pay walls because it seems to be paying off for the New York Times.

The reach of the New York Times is up overall, even though use of the actual paper is down, Casale says. And the paper’s model of giving away 20 free articles and then requiring a subscription looks to be working. But the verdict is still out on how to charge readers for content in a world where information is as free and readily available as air.

Still, Casale says, 80 percent of the newspaper executives AOR has spoken with recently expect to start charging for content in the next five to ten years. Small papers in particular are interested in the idea, he says.

But in the digital world, getting eyes on your site is not enough. Keeping eyes there will spell the difference between struggle and success. “Someone once told me that we have to turn visitors into residents,” Casale says. “I thought that was a pretty good line.”

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