The Next Newspaper Revolution

“Newspaper” is an interesting word.

It’s a compound noun, of course. But it combines what it is (news) with the medium upon which it is delivered (paper). The two ideas – that you get updates about what is happening around the world, brought to you on a series of sheets – are intrinsically connected to one another. I can’t think of another example of this, at least in the media/advertising world. You can say “TV comedy” of course, but that isn’t one word. We have taken the concept of news and paper and combined it into one single thing that we call a newspaper.

Much, I think, to the detriment of the newspaper industry.

Newspapers, as an industry, seem to have been sitting on the sidelines for years, watching innovation after innovation march right by. Maybe it’s the nature of the thing to observe and report, rather than act. Newspapers were publishing stories about the growth of the Internet when they should have been inventing Craigslist. Or Wikipedia. Or Blogger. Or Netvibes. Or a hundred other companies who, unbound by the connection between the content and the medium, have been free to figure out new ways to provide the services traditionally provided by newspapers.

Readers abandoned and revenues fell. It’s been the story of newspapers for the last decade and more. It seems like there is no real way to stem the flow of money and interest away from newspapers. Or, rather, that the way things looked like they were going. Very recently, the Pew Research Center put out some numbers that make it look like newspapers and the news industry may be poised for a whole new era.

The Tablet Is the Key

Technology seems to have unlocked a latent desire among people to consume lots and lots of news. According to the Pew study, people who use tablets spend 51 minutes reading news. People who use smartphones spend 54 minutes reading news. And the big show-stopping stat? People who use both spend 118 minutes reading news. The more devices you have, the more time you spend reading news. There is no cannibalization of time.

The behavior between the devices is very much what you would expect. Smartphones are used to check headlines and stay up to date. I personally feel like I hear more of my friends talking about stories they are “tracking” throughout the day, as though they were their own little CNN studio. Tablets are for in-depth reading and spending time with longer articles.

There is good news in there for those newspaper companies as well. Using the online edition seems to lead to subscribing to the print edition. Plus, about half of all users on both tablets and smartphones say they notice ads and about 12 percent have clicked through. All in all, a fairly healthy set of numbers for the industry.

Future of News?

A lot of people have spent a lot of time talking about the future of the newspaper or of news organizations in general. I’m going to add my voice to the mix, but from the perspective of the advertiser. That is, I’m not going to get concerned about the practices of journalism. I’m just going to assume that journalism will evolve in a way that keeps the flow of news interesting, informative, and engaging to the public.

The biggest benefit for advertisers is for the newspaper industry to stop thinking of the product they create as being 100 sheets of paper with news on it. Rather, the industry needs to see itself as creating relationships that keep people informed. If it does that, then it is putting that consumer in the center.

Then we can imagine as advertisers what role we might be able to play in that scenario. Yes, we can place ads on those screens that contain the news and pay for that on either a CPM or PPC basis. But is there a greater opportunity that exists within that relationship? Can a car company participate in helping to keep people informed on traffic conditions? Can a business computer company help keep people informed on financial news?

The answer, of course, is yes, but it comes with an inherent risk. By allowing brands to participate in news, we have to be concerned about their ability to influence the news. The potential for bias is huge and one that we are all acutely familiar with. When GE owned NBC, there was always the concern about NBC news’ reporting on things like nuclear energy (GE made nuclear power plants).

That risk, however, needs to be blended with the opportunity that we have. The fact is, brands are fundamentally changing the way they think about advertising. They are moving away from seeing the practice of advertising as less about messaging, more about engaging. Brands see what they create less as “ads” and more as “content.” They see themselves as publishers, just like the newspapers themselves.

That means that to push into this new world, brands and newspapers (really any media channel) need to start seeing their relationship as more of a peer one, rather than simply as buyers and sellers of space. Once we get to that point, then we can begin to brainstorm what we might just be able to do with all this time being spent reading the news.

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