Slimp Sums it Up

FOR YEARS NOW, we’ve been hearing how print is dead. It’s almost a death wish on the part of some publishers.

I don’t buy it…not for a minute. I still think there’s a place for print in our culture and that small newspapers in particular will remain in printed form long after I’m gone. For what it’s worth, one of my goals is to live to 100.

My colleague and friend Kevin Slimp recently wrote a column about the “death of newspapers,” summing up my thoughts on the topic. I think it should be required reading for all publishers. Here it is:

By Kevin Slimp

Director of the Institute of Newspaper Technology

IT’S BEEN an interesting month for me. I’ve spoken at several newspaper conferences, including a national conference for free papers, another national conference for paid weekly newspapers and a third conference for daily newspapers. At all three, I was approached by publishers asking, “What is the future of our industry?”

That seems to be the question of the day. Lisa Miller, general manager of New Century Press in Rock Rapids, Iowa, made an interesting comment during the Institute of Newspaper Technology last week. She noted that it seemed like every conference she had attended this year, other than the Institute, had focused solely on issues related to online journalism. Lisa added that she keeps hearing that print newspapers will be gone within the next ten years.

Like many newspaper publishers and managers that I meet, Lisa was concerned about what this meant to her paper. She mentioned her concern that newsprint would no longer be available, thus making it impossible to produce a community newspaper.

Let me share something I said to a conference of daily newspapers in Portland, Ore., a few weeks ago. After discussing issues related to online journalism for over an hour with the publishers and ad managers gathered in the room, I asked if I should call it a day and leave it at that or tell the group what I really thought about the current state of daily newspapers. Voices from the audiences called out, “Tell us!”

On the screen behind me appeared the letters “Y2k.” I asked the group how many of them remembered the Y2k scare of the late 90s. Every hand in the room went up.

“Do you remember,” I asked, “how everybody stored bottled water, food and blankets in their basements because they were sure the end of the world was around the corner?”

The audience nodded in unison.

“I didn’t buy water,” I told them. “And do you know why?”

I waited for an answer, but the room was silent as everyone anticipated my answer.

“Because I knew it wasn’t real. It was something that people believed because we told them it was going to happen. Everyone kept reading

in their newspapers and hearing on TV that the end was near. And they believed it.”

Heads moved in agreement. Like in a southern church service, I heard a voice say, “That’s right.”

“Well for the last three years,” I continued, “you’ve been telling your readers that newspapers were dying. That the end was near. And guess what. It took a while, but they finally believed you. And guess what. Your advertisers believed you, too.”

For the next few minutes, I shared what I thought about the importance of improving our print products. Now is the time to put more resources into making our newspapers more attractive to our readers. It’s time to invest in staff, equipment and training to create a product that’s more attractive to our communities.

Our print product is still vital to our communities. I was recently featured in a series of columns and stories in the Knoxville News Sentinel concerning summer travel mishaps with Delta Airlines. For weeks, people would stop me on the street, in restaurants or wherever to tell me they had read about me in the newspaper. I’d take the time to ask, “Did you see it online or in the print edition?”

To the person, the answer was the same, “I read it in the newspaper. I didn’t read it online.”

Like Y2k, we can convince ourselves that the end is near. And we can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that will make that a reality sooner than later.

Matt Yeager, a friend and publisher in West Virginia, told me last week that he didn’t understand why everyone thought print newspapers were dying. At his paper, ad revenues are at an all time high. Circulation hasn’t dwindled. People are reading the newspaper.

I asked him if he had told his readers that newspapers were dying.

“No,” was his response. “They’re not dying. Why would I tell them that?”

My thoughts exactly, Matt.

I ended my keynote to the group in Portland by reminding them to create an online product that engaged the reader and advertiser, but to remember that it’s the print product that pays the bills. It’s the print product that most of our readers turn to for their community news.

The dean of a major school of journalism told me two years ago that he felt all print newspapers would be gone within two years. He was a little surprised when I told him that might be the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

“Why would you say that?” he asked.

“Because if all the print newspapers die,” I said, “I’m starting one.

Reprinted with permission by Kevin Slimp. He can be reached at kevin@kevinslimp.com.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Slimp Sums it Up

  1. Marc Stumbo

    In a perfect world we would all like “to invest in staff, equipment and training to create a product that’s more attractive to our communities.” In reality that’s very often just not possible.

    I agree that newspapers, especially small newspapers, will continue to be a viable part of our culture. That’s really not the question. Many small newspapers simply cannot afford to continue in their present form. The cost of second-class mailing has gone through the roof, the cost of printing continues to skyrocket, and the unbelievably high cost of maintaining a health insurance plan prevents many small newspapers from hiring the full-time talent they need to “create a product that’s more attractive.” A down economy and the narrow advertising base most small newspapers experience also paint a dismal picture.

    I am involved with two weekly newspapers in two different states in two entirely different markets – one in the Midwest, the other in New Jersey just outside NYC. One mails to just under 5,000 subscribers, the other to 32,000. Both have seen the need to downsize the physical size of their newspaper and have engaged in staffing cuts. A smaller newspaper means less room for content … the very content that attracts subscribers and advertisers in the first place. With advertising revenues currently at a record low, both papers face formidable challenges.

    I read newspapers. I have been getting ink on my hands in one way or another for the better part of 50 years. I grew up in letterpress and experienced the industry-changing transformations to offset printing in the 60s, computer typesetting in the 70s and 80s and desktop publishing in the 90s. I am the last one to want to embrace the demise of print. But we all have to face reality.

    From where I sit a small newspaper’s only place for real expansion is the Web. No doubt many newspaper readers live in a print-preferred world – there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not, however, the case with the generation coming out of college today. They are not married to print – they are married to their smart phones and laptops. Their preferred delivery method of news and information is electronic. With little more than the cost of a domain registration, a hosting plan, some man-hours and a little retraining, a newspaper can position themselves to tap into that market … the market that is the future.

    Today, not only big daily newspapers can afford dynamic content-rich Websites. With the proliferation of content management systems, small newspaper Websites can be much more dynamic and functional that the traditional static sites we have traditionally seen in the industry. Using RSS to alert subscribers of new and changed content and having the ability to change that content continuously (and at virtually no cost) increases the viability of a weekly newspaper by not making subscribers wait a week for a new edition. Having the ability to track how many “hits” a particular page gets is an invaluable tool in advertising sales. Using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook also increase the paper’s reach and appeal. The potential of a newspaper’s Internet presence to pique both the subscriber’s and a potential advertiser’s interest in what the newspaper has to offer is unlimited. And the printed version can continue to remain an integral piece of a broader, more diverse pie.

    Print is not dead and I suspect it won’t be dead any time soon. But having a realistic outlook on the future path many, if not most, newspapers will be forced to take can only allow us to better position ourselves to remain alive and well in the future.

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