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Commentary & Analysis

At NEXPO’s Capital Conference, Newspapers Seek New Ways to Remain Relevant


By Richard Romano
Published: May 8, 2008


Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Kluger wrote, “Every time a newspaper dies, even a bad one, the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism; when a great one goes...history itself is denied a devoted witness.” But then H.L. Mencken said, “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.” So throughout the history of journalism, there have always been ambivalent feelings about the newspaper—or the media in general.

Today, those feelings of ambivalence are felt most acutely by those working in the newspaper industry. Specifically, where does the print newspaper fit in today’s media mix? And how do publishers keep newspapers relevant to an audience that is either aging and/or seeking out news and information from other media? And how do newspapers attract younger audiences? And where’s the money in it?

Such were top themes of many of the sessions at the Newspaper Association of America’s NEXPO Capital Conference, held April 12–16 in Washington, DC.

The NEXPO sessions were very well attended. In fact, the Associated Press luncheon featuring Presidential hopeful Barack Obama drew, according to Dean Singleton, chairman of the AP, record attendance and was “the first sold-out AP luncheon in 160 years.” (I attended sessions from all three Presidential hopefuls, and those will be covered in a follow-up article.)

However, exhibitors did not get to share the love, as it seemed that much of the crowd failed to funnel down to the show floor, which often had a sense of impending tumbleweeds rolling down aisles. (Perhaps it was the stern, martinet-like badge-checkers who would likely tackle to the ground anyone who failed to have their badge properly displayed. The Presidential candidates’ sessions had less security than the show floor, it seemed.) Several exhibitors were frustrated and disappointed by the lack of floor traffic.

The crux of the matter, though, was that it was almost immediately obvious that this was not a print-centric show; it was a strategy show about how to reclaim news audiences and develop a multichannel approach to providing news content. While print is certainly part of that, many of the sessions gave short shrift to print. When print was discussed at all, it was more often than not in the context of using it to drive traffic online.

This situation is hardly unique to the newspaper industry.

One telling phenomenon was that new media sessions were about how to increase revenue and make money; many of the print-centric sessions focused on how to save money.

The basic theme of this year’s NEXPO was “relevance,” in its myriad forms. How do print newspapers stay relevant? How does the news in general remain relevant? A brace of sessions on Sunday addressed different horns of the dilemma.

Attracting the Young of All Ages

“Attracting Young People: The Future is Now,” moderated by Jim Abbott, vice president of the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, presented the results of two research projects aimed at understanding what appeals to young people and how they interact with various media. Jack Dvorak, director of Indiana University’s High School Journalism Institute, made a compelling case for high schools to allocate more resources to journalism programs, as research has shown that students who have worked on a school newspaper and/or yearbook (the study grouped the two together) generally outperformed their non-journalism brethren—both in terms of grades and on standardized tests. Interestingly, journalism students performed slightly worse than the average in the areas of math and science (which could explain a lot of economics reporting, but I digress...). Still, the case could also be made that student involvement of any kind—be it chess club, debate club, science club, etc.—could be associated with higher academic performance. But the point was well-taken.

Robert Barnard, founder of Toronto’s Decode Inc., presented the results of a voluminous study on youth (herewith defined as those between 15 and 29—quite a broad range of individuals) and media trends. Regardless of medium, 25% of young people surveyed said they were “very interested in the news,” while another 25% were “not interested at all in the news.” (By the way, an international component found that in Europe, for example, as little as 9% of young people said they were “not at all interested in the news.”) Not surprisingly, print newspapers—and even newspapers’ Web sites—are of scant interest to young people; TV and Internet news aggregators (Google, Yahoo!) are the top ways that young people choose to get news, when they choose to get it at all. The Decode study, to be released this week, also asked general questions about young peoples’ interests; not unexpectedly, entertainment and sports were at the top of the list. 

The implications of the Decode study were that newspaper publishers should understand what appeals to young people in an attempt to refocus design and content to wrangle these young folks back into the print newspaper world. But does one do this at the risk of alienating older readers?

This question was answered by a subsequent and provocative panel discussion called “Building an Audience in a Fragmented Media World.” Moderated by Chris Peck, editor of Memphis’ Commercial Appeal, the presentation got a laugh early on with a YouTube clip of one of those old innocent and delightfully cheesy 1950s “career profile” educational short films on newspaper journalism, which featured shots of gruff, elderly managing editors in eyeshades barking out orders to intrepid reporters who then spend all day covering a fire. (Perhaps young people these days think this remains a fairly accurate depiction of newspaper journalism!) The video can be found here, and it’s a hoot, although I suddenly became nostalgic for my old typewriter.

Panelists included Jennifer Carroll, vice president of new media content for Gannett; Elizabeth Osder, senior director of product management at Yahoo! Media Group; Michael P. Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University; and Lisa Williams, founder of H2Otown and Placeblogger.com.

The answer to the question posed earlier—does a focus on attracting younger readers potentially alienate older readers—was phrased succinctly by Gannett’s Carroll: “Do we screw print up to reach a younger audience?” At the same time, panelists wondered, is a printed newspaper simply “nostalgia” for an earlier age?

As the title of the session indicated, the focus was on reaggregating a media audience that has scattered to the winds of many alternative media. Although it may sound like “herding cats,” the solution, almost unanimously in the eyes of the panel, is to use those very same media channels, or, as Carroll said, “Prepare content for however anyone wants to use it.” (The idea of “media-agnostic” content creation is not a new idea, but the number of vendors at the show touting just such an approach to newspaper publishing suggests that this idea is finally coming of age.) As with magazines and later TV, newspapers now have to confront the fact that we have become a “nation of niches.” Michael Smith, citing the need to reach these niches, suggested that one problem newspapers have is an “overreliance on advertising.” That is, they would be well-served to seek out and exploit new revenue streams. That’s the rub: what and where are those revenue streams? How do publishers aggregate and monetize an audience? Few concrete answers to the revenue questions were offered, but it was unanimously decided that much content should be “free.” The conundrum seems obvious.

Lisa Williams was introduced as the voice of the upstart competition—online, blogging, etc.—whose presentation was the most compelling of the lot (and was almost done in a kind of documentary style), and she injected a little bit of psychosocial theorizing into the changes in the media mix. As people become more isolated, as our sense of community erodes, there is less need to stay informed, but at the same time people are driven to form ersatz communities online.

Michael Smith’s presentation highlighted some possible solutions, citing three case studies of older brands that were reinvigorated after embracing new media and a multichannel approach: Major League Baseball, Better Homes & Gardens, and the German newspaper Vorarlberg Medienhaus, all of which retooled their media offerings, be they print, Web, blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, photosharing, mobile video, and, in the case of MLB, an extensive searchable database of games from throughout baseball’s history. And, said Smith, MLB baseball users can “have the same content delivered 12 different ways.” Again, the notion of media-agnosticism.

Continued on Page 2

Even print-centric sessions were about relevance, often in the context of cost-cutting and applying new technologies to the printing process to make newspapers more customized and personalized and, yes, more relevant.

These and other topics will be included in my follow-up article. Stay tuned.

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.



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