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Feb. 3, 2009, 10:47 a.m.

NewspaperProject: a wobbly kickoff

It’s all the fault of us bloggers on “websites that feature negative, gloom-and-doom stories about newspapers.”  So, “a group of newspaper executives” has launched NewspaperProject.org,* which “will be devoted to insightful articles, commentary and research that provide a more balanced perspective on what newspaper companies can do to survive and thrive in the years ahead.”  The “group” also produced print ads and website banners designed for a one-day deployment on Monday, making the point that more people read newspapers than watched the Superbowl.

A “more balanced perspective” presumably means: news and commentary with the optimistic view that the existing newspaper business model has got a future.  So the site offers headlines like: “NYT executive editor on why newspapers will survive,” “Time to stand up for newspapers,” “Time for Newspaper Folks to Fight Back,” “The Catalog Factor: Why investors should buy newspaper stocks,” and, believe it or not, David Carr’s “Let’s Invent an i-Tunes for News.” (Yes, that one.)  We won’t read about the next newspaper bankruptcy at NewspaperProject.

One of the newspaper industry’s long-standing problems is that it consistently does a terrible job promoting itself.  Or rather, it has inconsistently done a terrible job — most of the time it has done no industry-wide promotion at all, and when it has (there have been two or three industry-wide campaigns organized by the NAA in the last decade), it has been done poorly and without followthrough.  So far, this is no exception.  Let us count the ways this is not the “Got Milk” of daily newspapers:

  • Transparency, or rather, the lack thereof.  Who are those “newspaper executives”?  There is no “About Us” or “Contact Us” at NewspaperProject indicating who owns or runs it.  Readers are invited to react via an anonymous Gmail address.  The site URL was registered via Advance Magazines, a unit of the Newhouse family’s Advance Publications (which may explain the secretive approach).   Elsewhere, we learn that the effort is orchestrated by  Donna Barrett, president and CEO of Community Newspaper Holdings, Brian P. Tierney, publisher and CEO of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Randy Siegel, president and publisher of Parade Publications, and Jay Smith, former president of Cox Newspapers.
  • A fuzzy message. What is the point of the headline on the banner ad shown at the top of this post?  I worked with national sales representatives for newspapers for at least 20 years, during which they consistently tried to pitch agencies on the notion that “newspapers are the last mass medium,” only to watch national ad volume continue to decline.  More people watched television, more people used the internet, more people listened to the radio, more people saw a billboard, and more people used cell phones than “watched the big game,” as well — so what?  We’ve been there, we’ve done this — what we need is a much clearer pitch.
  • And a questionable message, to boot.  The ad was written before the game, and doesn’t show sources for its claims (but it should), nor does it explain what’s meant by “watched.”  But Nielsen reports that the Superbowl had 147 million viewers who tuned in for at least six minutes, and an average viewership of 95.4 million — not appreciably below the 100 million daily newspaper readers claimed by the ad.
  • Focusing on the delivery method, rather than the product.  Progressive industry executives, including New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, whose post leads the site today (it’s part of a week-long Q&A worth following), see the industry on a path of transition from print delivery to digital delivery.  No, print is not dead, but readers who prefer print are getting older every day.   NewspaperProject is focused on the unsustainable model of printing and delivering newsprint to customer base that will soon consist mainly of retired people.  (In fairness, the ad message does, in a footnote-ish way, tack “and newspaper websites” after “newspapers,” but the headline is focused only on print.)
  • Too little, too late.  Perhaps the group behind NewspaperProject has more up their sleeve.  But a one-day ad campaign clearly isn’t enough.  The followthrough, in the form of a more evergreen campaign, should have happened already, and to the extent the campaign might drive an occasional media buyer to the site, there should be a wealth of links to information supporting the contention that newspapers and newspaper web sites are good choices for advertisers.  And perhaps more importantly, there should be a strong, simple, direct summary pitch.  Right now, there are three “Resource Links,” one to a 2007 study.  All three seem intended to show that reading newspapers drives people to look at web content, but there’s no context for those messages.  And there’s no action line — if somehow I’m convinced and want to buy newspaper advertising, what do I do next?  The site and the promo ads don’t tell me.

*UPDATE, Feb. 4:  People following my link in the first paragraph to NewspaperProject.org today will, strangely enough, see my own post about social networking excerpted and linked at the top of that site.  For the record, they asked me if they could use it, and I said of course, why not.

POSTED     Feb. 3, 2009, 10:47 a.m.
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