Sunday, June 08, 2008

Unsolicited Advice to Herald Execs

Bob Norman recently posted an email that Tribune Company CEO Sam Zell sent to Tribune employees and characterized it as "hair-raising, gut-stirring, [and] nightmarish".

Here's an excerpt of Zell's email:

What has become clear as we have gotten intimately familiar with the business is that the model for newspapers no longer works. Supply and demand are not in balance, and that manifests itself in two ways:
1. We are not giving readers what they want, and
2. We are printing bigger papers than we can afford to print

First, our publishing business – and to reiterate, it IS a business – needs to retool itself to a customer-centric model. We have now reviewed dozens of reader studies done by Tribune over the years, and they present clear and consistent findings. Readers want:

- Unbiased, honest journalism
- LOCAL consumer and community news
- Maps, graphics, lists, ranking and stats

...We will be assuming a 50/50 ad-to-editorial ratio base as a floor to right-size our papers. With that benchmark we can significantly scale back the size of the papers we print, and take significant costs out of our operating run rate.
I suppose that it would be hair-raising, gut-stirring, and nightmarish if you had a vested interest in jousting windmills. I'm a firm believer in the idea that the newspaper industry doesn't have to die and that it doesn't have to offer inferior quality to survive. There's an underlying paternalism in Bob Norman's reaction: readers (customers) don't know what's good for them, we know what's good for them. Reminds me of the old story of Henry Ford saying "they can have it any color they want as long as it's black." Of course that didn't last for long when customers began buying Chryslers and General Motors cars in different colors.

I believe the Herald can be saved as an institution, what can't be saved is the current business model. I've been thinking about it today and here's a few unsolicited ideas. Warning, they are radical.

1. The subscription model should be scrapped in favor of a 100% advertising-based model. That goes for online, online archives and the printed version of the paper. Paid circulation is plunging and before long there will hardly be any subscribers anyway. Why not make it free? Circulation will surely rise and thus will the ad rates that the Herald can command. Maybe the Herald's own delivery people can pick up old newsprint to recycle.

2. The free paper would certainly not resemble what the Herald delivers today. Scrap the broadsheet layout in favor of a tabloid layout. It's easier to handle and read. Add more color.

3. Recognize that sooner or later online is going to be your top source of readers and ad revenue. That means take steps to make online the hub around which all Herald activity is based. Better use the technology that's available like audio and video to make more powerful than it presently is. The printed paper will be reduced in size and scope and serve as a gateway to dotcom. If you have a great investigative piece or columnist make it a dotcom exclusive and drive people there by teasing it in the printed paper. Offer advertisers package deals for print and dotcom.

4. Given that dotcom will be the hub, and the online world doesn't sleep, the Herald needs to become a 24-hour news organization like the cable news networks. Use the TV and radio partnerships that are currently underutilized.

5. Take Sam Zell's advice and focus on unbiased, honest journalism. People are cynical about the mainstream media and rightly so. This alone would help stop the bleeding at the Herald. Editors need to challenge bias when they see it and the opinions page needs to be balanced.

6. The Miami Herald currently has my email address and some basic demographic information about me. It's the "price" I had to pay to read the dotcom version and to post comments. I've received several emails from the Herald soliciting me to subscribe but I have NEVER received an email with a news alert about a breaking story. The Herald should allow its online users to opt into such alerts for different topics. Google has been doing this for years. The alerts can be accompanied by advertising and go to email or to a mobile device.


Matthew I. Pinzur said...

On the left-hand rail of the Herald homepage is a link to "News by Email."

You can sign up there for news alerts, as well as daily and weekly digests on some topics.

There's also a link to "News by mobile" for text-message updates.

Henry Louis Gomez said...

Thanks Matt.

The point still stands though. I receive solicitation emails, why don't I receive an orientation email that offers those alerts to me? Needless to say those links are rather inconspicuous.

I will sign up and relate my experience.

JHop said...

I believe the problem with unpaid newspaper circulation is that advertisers value paid circulation more than unpaid. Their reasoning has been that a paper someone paid to obtain will more likely be read. Sounds reasonable to me.

Henry Louis Gomez said...

That's true but at some point a larger unpaid circulation is worth more than a smaller paid circulation. We're still talking about subscribers. They need to find a way to make print support dotcom. Advertisers want to go where the eyeballs are, period.