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The newspaper industry is learning how to better understand the passions of readers to attract and retain subscribers. The New York Times reportedly now earns two-thirds of its revenue from subscriptions. Hearst is targeting having 30 percent of its revenue come from subscribers.

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I recently met with a newspaper management team, and asked them what their biggest problems were.

The ad director, after pausing to look around the room, volunteered that he’d visited a large local car dealer – traditionally a major advertiser – who said he wanted to only advertise to people who were looking to buy a car.

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One of the hardest duties I had during the 14 years I was editor and publisher of the Bigfork (Montana) Eagle was writing obituaries.

Sometimes, I’d get a call from a snowbird, telling me of a loved one’s death, and asking me to help write the obit. Or, a local resident would drop by the office with the sad news, and we’d sit in my office and compose the obituary. Many death notices came in the mail, or via fax.  In a small town like Bigfork, each obituary meant a piece of the community had died.

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It sounds like a plot to a Grade B Science fiction horror movie: Robots take over the media, then the world.

The story line goes something like this: Stories in newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets are written not by human reporters, but by robots who distribute their tales over vast automated and uncontrolled networks. Advertising is bought and sold not by merchants talking to advertising representatives, but by computers talking to computers in a vast network of algorithms that ignore – even override -- human emotions.

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Sit in the back of a news- paper conference meeting room and what will you likely see? Mostly the balding, graying heads of old white men.

The speaker may be talking about “how to change the culture of your business,” but—I fear—many members of the audience are still trying to find a path back to the glory days when newspapers dominated run-of-paper, classified, employment and insert advertising.

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Newspaper folks are a hardy lot. During my days as a weekly newspaper publisher, I heard innovative ways to generate revenue. One weekly publisher delivered dry cleaning when he took his paper to the printer. Another sold popcorn to the movie theater next door. Others ran office supply stores and print shops. One newspaper once housed the local post office, another sold bait. One publisher even moonlighted as a licensed private investigator.

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Computers writing stories.  Reporter jobs vanishing.  Pulitzer Prize winners quitting to go into public relations. What the heck is going on in the world of journalism?

The short answer is that the U.S. Labor Department reports that some 12,000 reporting jobs have disappeared in the last decade. And hopes for a turnaround aren’t good.

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Years ago, some digital gurus suggested that online newspapers would dominate the Internet advertising space because buyers and sellers would want to transact business on trusted news sources rather than “the dark, back alleys” of the World Wide Web.

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In the fall of 2007, Lee Enterprises faced a triple whammy — huge debt, the onset of the Great Recession, and a massive structural upheaval that was overwhelming the newspaper industry. Transforming the business model became critical to the company’s survival.

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I once traveled back through time — 10 years to be exact — a trip that helped me make critical business decisions.

In 1973, when I joined The Associated Press in Denver, reporters used typewriters, editors made changes on paper, and Teletype operators “punched tape” and posted the stories on various AP wires.

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Years ago, when I interviewed agribusiness billionaire J.R. Simplot, I found him in a foul mood because the Dominican Republic had just nationalized “my gold mine” not long after it became profitable. He would be reimbursed only pennies on the dollar, he said.

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On a blustery February day in 1981, a two-sentence story moved on the Texas AP wire reporting the death of Bill Haley. It read something like:

HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) — Former Rock ‘n Roll star Bill Haley, 55, was found dead today. Police say they are investigating, but don’t suspect foul play.

I was the AP’s assistant chief of bureau and state news editor at the time, and I remember seeing the story and calling our correspondent in Harlingen. “We need more of a story than this! Maybe he’s not Elvis, but Bill Haley was a big-time star!”

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In July, The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook page was hacked with a false report: “#Breaking: U.S. Air Force One crash feared as air traffic control loses contact with pilot over Russian air space.”

Several minutes later, a second false report was hacked onto the Journal’s Facebook page: “#Breaking: Vice President Biden to address nation in 15 minutes.”

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I once believed that e-editions were only good because the Postal Service was so bad. Publishers joked that we paid 38 cents a copy for out-of-state postal delivery of our print newspaper — eight cents for delivery and 30 cents for storage.

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Thirty-two reporters and photographers have died in the line of duty while working for my former employer, The Associated Press. The first was Mark Kellogg ,who died while covering Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bigfork on June 25, 1876. The most recent was photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who was shot to death April 4, 2014, by an Afghan policeman, who also shot and wounded AP correspondent Kathy Gannon.

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Looking around the grand ballroom at the recent Mega Conference in Las Vegas, I didn’t see a newspaper executive reading a printed newspaper. Not one. Most, instead, had their eyes focused on cell phones, tablets or laptops.

So, it was not surprising that the conference’s opening speaker, Gordon Borrell, presented some discouraging words for the publishers in the audience, especially regarding printed products: The future for revenue lies in digital.

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Reporters and editors — among the most interesting, sometimes bizarre people I’ve had the pleasure to know — are on my endangered species list.

The American Society of News Editors says the number of full-time professionals working at newspapers fell from 52,600 in 2007, to 38,000 in 2012. The 2013 census isn’t complete, but the ugly trend of layoffs continued — if not accelerated — last year. TV, radio and magazine journalists haven’t fared much better.

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I’m a reformed “purist.” When I graduated journalism school, I believed the news and advertising departments should be entirely separate. Reporters shouldn’t even talk to ad reps, etc. But after I bought my own weekly newspaper, my attitude began to change. Bills need to be paid, payrolls met.

Still, I believe in a clear distinction between news and advertising. I worry that the blurring of those lines will hurt the integrity — and ultimately the profits — of news outlets.

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Ad revenues at U.S. daily newspapers have fallen by 50 percent in the last five years, from $47.4 billion in 2005 to $22.8 billion in 2010, the last number reported by the Newspaper Association of America.

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Last year set the stage for a heavyweight championship fight in the newspaper industry, with digital first in one corner, and paywalls in the opposite corner of the ring.

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A panel of industry experts predicts that printed Yellow Page directories will be dead within five years - freeing up some $9 billion in annual advertising expenditures.

"Nine out of 10 panelists agree that printed directories will cease to exist," said Borrell Associates, which released the survey in late July.

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The hotel shuttle bus picked me up outside Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport in the early evening. No one else was in the shuttle, so I jumped in the front seat passenger seat so I could better talk with the driver — an eye-opening experience.

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One of my favorite cartoons shows a general, standing in front of troops armed only with spears, telling the machine gun salesman, "Sorry, I don't have time to talk to you today - I have a battle to fight!"

I thought of the cartoon as I read a recent Pew Research study called "Closing the Local News ‘App Gap.'

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One of the great stories of Colorado newspaper lore is the report that Will Overhead "won" the 1933 Indianapolis 500 auto race.

The technology and economics in the middle of the Great Depression caused The Associated Press to offer what was called "the Pony Wire." Instead of installing a teletype machine, the AP offered small daily newspapers the option of dialing in to a conference call.

Marc...My Words

Marc Wilson

CEO TownNews.com
E-mail: marcus@townnews.com