Josh Sternberg, Confessions of a Newspaper Ad Exec
Why are newspapers slow to embrace digital change?
By their very own design, they are built for an extremely top-down decision-making process and tremendously inefficient for today’s marketplace from all facets. You wouldn’t believe how resistant to change newsroom roles are — change that should have happened years ago. Time is running out, and they don’t get that. There still is a blind and bold arrogance – and that’s a bad combo. Embracing and succeeding today for newspapers represents a seismic change or shift in how they do everything. This sort of change is also expensive: accounting systems, content-management systems for editorial, multiple forms of paid research and ad tech for sales and marketing. Also, add in all training for all departments on new systems – it’s a huge endeavor.
Are newspapers really in a death spiral?
Outside of a handful of truly digital-first newspapers, yes, for several reasons. Because newspapers are hemorrhaging, there is a terrible urgency that is building to find the next biggest thing — a sort of “Hail Mary” solution. What they’re failing to realize is that the best publishers out there aren’t relying on just one thing to survive or thrive. Instead, it’s a game of yards and first downs (data, collaboration, new products and digital investment) vs. the deep pass. Third-party relationships aren’t really being leveraged properly. From creating content to understanding your own data, these companies enable you to have contemporary conversations. Another big issue is the dwindling ability to attract qualified digital talent in all departments — editorial, marketing, sales.
Why won’t paywalls work for newspapers?
Creating quality content to justify paywalls or paid subscriptions is costly – newsrooms are cutting long-form journalists and are struggling to find the right balance of long-form plus quick, short pieces. Very few newspapers really give a reason to pay. Also, there is a terrible misunderstanding about what paid subscriptions or paywalls are for the publisher. In some cases, it is a way to replace, mitigate or recapture free-falling paid circulation numbers. This is tragic because for most newspapers, paid circulation has never represented more than 20 to 30 percent of the company’s total revenue (the other 70 to 80 percent is advertising). So how on earth would you ever accomplish that now?
Some will make the transition, but I think Sternbergs’ characterization shows that newspapers are stuck in a pre-digital timewarp, and transitioning to a postnormal, fast-and-loose model of journalism — which matches the economy we are in — is an imperative that most will not heed.