It was an idea apparently first conceived by the Egyptians nearly 5,000 years ago and evolved to its current "ink-on-mashed-up tree" form 2,000 years ago by the Chinese (who are apparently having a bit of a comeback).

Ever since the 17th century, machines printed words on what was called paper that was then collated into pages and finally distributed and sold in packages called newspapers. Each one was typically read for about half an hour, by maybe two or three people, interested in what was happening in their neighborhoods, their communities and their worlds.

You'd think newspaper executives today would celebrate that fact. Instead, if you listen to a conversation among executives working in the newspaper business, attend a newspaper conference or read a publishing company's report on its strategy, you'd come up with one conclusion: paper is dead.

Here's the fact: Around 2.5 billion people every day, 40 percent of the world's adult population, read a newspaper, and sales and readership of paper-based products continues to increase.

Don't block it out

Yes, newspapers have been extraordinarily slow to recognize the value and power of digital media. But that's no reason to suddenly block out print from the intellectual mindset. In fact, given the slowness of digital adoption, abandoning paper is suicidal.

Here are some more facts: Today, worldwide, digital revenues account for only about 5 percent of the industry's total ad sales. In the United States, that percentage is about 6 percent; in the United Kingdom it's 5 percent. Scandinavia, one of the world's most sophisticated media markets, is the exception. There, Norwegian media company Shibsted reports that 30 percent of its revenues and 50 percent of its profits stem from digital, but that's only after the publisher invested heavily in growing its digital operations.

In the best of scenarios, forecasters predict that digital revenues might account for, at most, 20 percent of turnover and 25 percent of profit by 2014. There will be exceptions, both nationally and in terms of individual publishers, particularly those involved in business and financial publishing.

But for the rest, print will remain the foundation of their businesses, both in terms of bringing in revenue and underpinning their organizations' growth and visibility, for a long time to come.

The problem is that in Western markets, at least, newspapers have been denigrated by a number of disbeliefs.

Misplaced priority?

The first? The view that the only requirement a publisher must meet to become the local brand is merely being available. Publishers increasingly believed that just being out there is enough. Imagine if Coca-Cola or McDonald's assumed that being in the fridge or down the street were adequate branding.

Last time I looked, newspapers spent approximately a third of the proportion of their revenues on marketing, compared with other consumer industries.

Not good enough.

Such is the obsession with all things digital that too many newspaper companies are now over-focusing on their digital activities and in the process under-prioritizing their print products. Too often there is minimal linkage between the two, with publishers encouraging digital interaction to enhance the print offer. Of course there are wonderful exceptions. But those are not the norm.

A third issue is the confusion among brands. Instead of re-inventing their news service online, some newspapers have developed alternative online brands that focus on specific topics, such as property, dating, business and other activities.

A big question mark hangs over the future of news and the migration of classified from print to digital. Newspapers will survive only if they keep their news brands alive across multiple media channels and focus their new branded vehicles against transactional competitors.

Good mix

Here's a good example. The Irish Times, the first European newspaper to launch its Web site, recently repositioned its Ireland.com service as "Ireland's desktop." The paper revitalized its Irishtimes.com Web site for news. The publisher also owns verticals in some key classified sectors. Meanwhile, the Irish Times print edition continues to compete aggressively against the influx of low-priced U.K. newspaper editions distributed throughout the country.

We should be proud of print, innovate in print, and realize that technological developments will push the cost of print down while increasing its value as a targeted medium.

Just take a look at the (New York) Daily News.

Publisher Mort Zuckerman invested $200 million to buy new presses, with a likely depreciation period of 15 to 20 years. It was only four years ago that Rupert Murdoch spent upwards of $1 billion to retool his U.K production plants with new presses. Is anyone telling me that Murdoch and Zuckerman don't understand investment and the future of print media?

I met with Daily News Editor Martin Dunn at the time the paper was planning for the new machines. He showed me ideas and layouts that were brilliant, unique and completely innovative. Soon, those pages will be a reality.

New battle?

We're ready to watch two of our industry's leading optimists - and realists - ready to do battle in the single-copy New York market. Zuckerman has his new presses, and Murdoch is spending millions to upgrade the machines now producing the New York Post.

Other print-based investments are also bearing fruit. Osterreich, the full-color newspaper launched in Austria in 2006, continues to gain traction. In Poland, Axel Springer's Fakt went from launch to bestseller in fewer than six months. And in Germany, Die Welt's compact little sister, Welt Compakt, continues to appeal to a younger single-copy audience, going from strength to strength. The publisher is cleverly linking its online interactivity back into the print product.

Most recently, there's been talk about the launch of a new pan-European newspaper that would reflect the expansion and integration of the European Union. If it comes to pass, the newspaper would be the first truly international multilingual product. We'll see.

Finally, this note: Interesting that Warren Buffett, the world's most renowned business investor, made his biggest investment ever, this time buying Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. Decades after pundits said railroads were dying and were no longer viable, I wonder: Is there something allegorical going on here?

 

Jim Chisholm is a principal of iMedia, WAN-Ifra's joint venture advisory service. He can be reached at jim.chisholm@imediaadvisory.com

 

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