How to Save Newspaper Companies

I’ve never written for a newspaper, but my mom did. I held jobs at both the Des Moines Register and my hometown paper, The Altoona Herald. I still fondly remember the smell of newsprint filling the air when I stepped into the Herald’s offices each week.

I do make a living writing online, which is why I’m weighing in on the latest announcement of newspaper financial woes. Newspapers are no longer printed paper businesses. They are news gathering and distribution companies who should be engaging all viable means of delivery to reach the widest possible audience. The information provided by newspaper companies has tremendous value, which makes it troubling to see that newspapers are cutting the most important assets in their business; the people who write the news.
According to Joe Garofoli of the San Francisco Chronicle,

” Eighty reporters, photographers, copy editors and others, as well as 20 employees in management positions are expected to be laid off by end of the summer.”

The Chronicle is one of the papers doing a decent job of making their Website worth visiting and apparently it’s not making a difference on their bottom line. Clearly newspapers need to do something different.

The Chronicle’s woes are being widely reported on blogs, without any real suggestions for resolution. As someone who makes a living publishing online, here are a few key observations that might save the newspaper industry from changing times:

Accountability for Search Engine Ranking
– Every newspaper in the United States (the world?) needs something like a Chief Search Officer. Search drives traffic, which ultimately translates to more ad views. Search rankings for newspapers in general are abysmal, largely because papers haven’t designed their sites to make them search friendly. Search should not fall under the CTO responsibilities, it should be a separate task force. Create a search team, make them accountable for increasing traffic from both organic and paid results. This also means sites like the New York Times need to allow the search team to knock down the pay wall and make the story archives available to the world.

Newspapers Need Video – if declining ad revenue due to lost ad channels like classifieds are a problem, invent new ad channels. Every newspaper should be doing video on the Web today. The ad rates for video are significantly higher than text advertising. The newspaper sites that embrace video will be the newspaper sites still thriving for the next 50 years. Maybe it’s time for the Chronicle to get re-married to KRON to re-form (reform?) a local multimedia powerhouse.

Think Global About Your Locale – Newspapers are experts on their communities. Newspapers are lousy at promoting their communities to anyone outside the community. When I take a trip, for business or pleasure, I search the Web for information about the place I’m visiting. I almost never see newspaper sites in my search queries. If I visit newspaper sites specifically, the leisure information is almost always geared toward locals who already know the community, which makes it hard for an outsider to navigate. When people take vacations, they plan their trips around sites to see and things to do. Newspapers could be the authority on these topics if they simply focused on providing travel information to outsiders as part of their Web offerings.

Think Local about Your Locale – Better local coverage of the things people in the community care about means increased community participation. Cover the local sports teams (I mean high school and little league, not the Giants and A’s) – you’ll get relatives from all over the country reading and the pass-along factor will be higher. Cover more local business news beyond new business openings and closings. Get every writer on the staff to write about their favorite places to eat – they don’t need to be food critics to know what they like.

Keep Your Best Assets – The reporters and journalists at a paper are the papers raison d’être. Instead of firing them, change the way they are compensated for their efforts. Many of the blogging conglomerates offer performance bonuses to blog authors based on the amount of traffic they drive to the site. This may mean picking story topics with a wider appeal, or it may mean grunt work engaging potentially interested communities by commenting on forums and blogs. Writers may resist this notion, but if they are doing their jobs, they’re already lurking in these online communities in the first place. If they aren’t willing to engage online communities, give ’em the boot.