Print publishers need to attack, not retract

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

Throw out all of your preconceived notions about “the death of print newspapers.”

Most small communities have weekly newspapers and those are generally doing OK. There are also small daily papers, which largely are surviving as well.

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The thought has been that older people read papers and as they die off, younger people, raised on iPads and such, will not read them.

Then, the secondary worry is that the younger readers also will not pay for web subscriptions, as they are used to getting things for free on the web and, second, CPM-based ads only pay pennies on the dollar. Without revenue, how does a paper pay its writers?

The reality is, many small papers are only reaching a small fraction of their communities. Perhaps as low as 10 percent or even less. In other words, instead of being afraid of shrinking, there is room to grow.

This would mean a change in mindset.

I’d say to publishers:

  • Local newspapers should stop being complacent about circulation. Go to all of the places that sell your paper, and new businesses that don’t, and make sure your racks are modern, clean, near the counter and properly branded. Most papers haven’t updated their displays in a decade or more. They act resigned.
  • Don’t get discouraged if younger people aren’t picking up the paper. Remember, you only need to get 10 percent of them. Sponsor younger-skewing events. Get in their faces. Do an ad campaign showing young influencers reading your paper.
  • Create public awareness campaigns to let people know that that dollar or two they spend on your paper supports local journalism. You might get some goodwill that way.
  • Swap ad space with all other local media entities — local TV, radio, etc. — the enemy is not them; it’s Facebook and other faraway Internet entities.

So, what about the web? We’ve already determined that CPM and paywalls do not work (unless you have the quality and quantity of The New York Times, which I doubt any small papers can even come close to). Locally sold ads can also be problematic, in that the web just isn’t good at “call to action” campaigns when your hit counts are only in the thousands. You need hundreds of thousands of hits to make CPM work; but that would mean getting non-local traffic — thus, local advertisers would not benefit.

The paper’s web site has to promote the print edition and the brand. And you will have to sell your own goods via the site, not be a mere middle man. Whatever it is — wines with your paper’s name, for example — you need to earn more than the pennies third-party ads pay, or the pay-per-sale type ads that give you a 10 percent commission. You need a much higher markup.

There isn’t going to be some mass die-off of your older readers. They will slowly fade away. There’s still plenty of time to work hard and convert the next generation — again, you don’t need them all. Just 10 percent will do. Don’t get discouraged by the dummies who say they don’t read; there have always been dummies.

Grab what new readers you can. Newspapers need to take more pride in their traditional brand and be more aggressive.

Darren Johnson owns Campus News, a newspaper that gets great pickup among young adults. Learn more at